Science, Theology, and Race
The election of President Barack Obama sparked conversation regarding the United States venturing into a post-racial era in its history. However, in lieu of the recent presidential election between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, it appears that the seal on America’s post-racial Pandora’s Box has been removed and the forces of xenophobia and racism have been unleashed back onto to the canvas of our present reality. As a consequence, unbridled racial animus is now acceptable, conspicuous chauvinism is no longer concealed, and overt hatred of the other is legitimized as right and reasonable.
Attempts to normalize bigotry and bias are reoccurring, as displayed by a recent interview with television anchor Roland Martin and white nationalist Richard Spencer. Interestingly, the grounds Spencer used to justify white supremacy were neither contemporary nor cutting-edge. The ideological pillars Spencer employed to justify his racial interpretation supporting the continuance of white hegemony in the political, economic, and social order were science and Christian theology.
An Unholy Alliance Toward Hegemony
Science and Christian theology since the period of the Enlightenment have often been deemed antagonistic, antipodal, and likened to inimical alien authorities. Yet, science and theology (undergirded by philosophy) have corresponded to each other like dance partners in the construction and sustenance of the anatomy of racism. For example, Immanuel Kant’s “Of the Different Human Races,” Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia, racially interpreted adaptations of Darwin’s Origin of Species, and justification of slavery by the “curse of Ham” where “dark skin was thought to be God’s curse on Ham for looking upon Noah when he was drunk and naked” exemplify the convergence of pseudo-science, philosophy, and theology in the justification of racism.1
The quest toward the redemption of science and theology (for the purpose of racial reconciliation) begins by establishing points of common ground. Finding common ground between science and theology is important in determining points of commonality that people share with each other—whether biologically, genetically, and in accordance with God’s relation to creation.
Theology describes racism as a condition of the heart and mind related to the reality of human sinfulness. Science appeals to the capacity of human reason, but it shapes human commitments. Yet, when theology is sullied with racism it sanctifies human hatred. When science is tainted by racist agendas, scientists advance unfounded arguments as indisputable facts. As a consequence, this contributes to misguided spiritual formation and the formation of distorted racial reasoning. What are youth leaders, youth pastors, and lay people to do in a time in history marked by unrestrained racial animosity and bigoted irrationality?
Redemption and Reconciliation
I assert that youth volunteers, youth pastors and lay leaders are to work to redeem science and theology (in a dialectical tension) as an important step toward racial reconciliation. The redemption of science and theology includes the task of delivering each branch of knowledge from invalidated postulations that uphold racial myths of superiority. In addition, the redemption of science and theology includes the unmasking of false beliefs regarding race, science, and theology in our Christian education, spiritual formation, and proclamation.
The nuances of racism and its subtle expressions in our churches perpetuates division and is an obstacle to the possibility of genuine racial reconciliation. Subsequently, reconciliation to God affects our relationships and includes an emphasis on reconciliation with others. Racial reconciliation is not blind to the injustice endured by people who have been oppressed and marginalized. It seeks to remedy these injustices while building bridges toward relationship and fellowship. Thus, reconciliation is a response to God’s grace, bears witness to God’s gracefulness evinced in our interaction with all people and is reflective of a renewed way of thinking.
The quest toward the redemption of science and theology (for the purpose of racial reconciliation) begins by establishing points of common ground. Finding common ground between science and theology is important in determining points of commonality that people share with each other—whether biologically, genetically, and in accordance with God’s relation to creation. Hence, where do science and theology intersect in useful ways that can help fight against the leviathan of racism which disorders human relationships and destroys the good in creation?
The Origin of Races
Racism is a social construct predicated upon significance given to human differences. Differences in human physical appearance, culture, and so-called intellectual differences put forth by theorists in the soft sciences are overemphasized. As a consequence, this contributes to the establishment of a racial caste system. It should be noted that assertions advanced by scientists in the soft sciences (anthropology, psychology, sociology) are difficult to verify and measurable criteria is hard to establish.
In contrast, hard science is descriptive of “experimental design and scientific method…where it is easy to set up controlled variables and make objective measurements.”2 Moreover, hard sciences (biology, chemistry, astronomy, physics, genetics, molecular biology) are perceived as being more exact, rigorous, and objective. Both hard science and theology affirm the common origin of humanity. Human geneticists Lynn Jorde and Stephen Wooding of the University of Utah School of Medicine determined in their study on DNA variations the following:
All these findings, which are in accord with many other studies based on different types of genetic variation assessed in different samples of humans, support an evolutionary scenario in which anatomically modern humans evolved first in Africa, accumulating genetic diversity. A small subset of the African population then left the continent, probably experienced a population bottleneck and founded anatomically modern populations in the rest of the world. Of special importance to discussions of race, and our species has a recent common origin.3
Melanin, Identity, and Worth
Despite this hard science, cartographers and theologians in Western history “divided the known world into three regions—Africa, Asia, and Europe—and assigned the supposed three races to the regions.”4 Willie Jennings notes that Prince Henry of Portugal’s royal chronicler Gomes Eanes Zurara, in his theological account of 15th century slavery, participates in “the reconfiguration of space and bodies, land and identity.”5 Geography, location and spatial distinctiveness becomes the signifier of human identity.
Perhaps science and theology can help redeem each other. The result of this redemptive activity in the context of racial hostility can be forgiveness, repentance, justice work, and love for neighbors with different skin color.
Accordingly, human physical diversity is not viewed as a consequence of human migration from a place of common origin to others places on the map. Melanin is transformed from skin color based on human adaptation to sunlight into a socio-political stigmata determining one’s life chances, social standing, and the possibility of social mobility. As a result, the verity of common human ancestry is subjugated to theological and scientific interpretations of individuals in the service of imperialism and colonialist activity. Theological and scientific assertions that justify imperialism and racism are silent on matters of common origin. These perspectives communicate explicit arguments that support the domination of the other people and appeal to notions of Divine sanction, election, or natural selection to validate their claims.
Opposing Racism in Word and Deed
Creationists sometimes overlook the significance of common African origin in their depictions of creation and actually reinforce racist ideologies whether intentionally or unintentionally. For example, creationist Ken Ham has been a proponent of racial reconciliation in his curriculum on creation. Yet, Daniel Fairbanks notes the Creation Museum “displays life-size mannequins of Adam and Eve with Caucasian features consistent with most contemporary American depictions of Eve and Adam.”6 This depiction ignores science and is inconsistent with the historical context of the author of Genesis. Moreover, the creation narrative describes humanity as being made in God’s image and the mannequins reinforces the origins of humanity as the history of “whiteness.” Yet, Paul does not exclude Jews or non-Jews in his account of redemption history in Romans 5. Paul argues that all humanity is sinful and that God redeems both Jews and non-Jews. Consequently, a new community is formed where identity markers are secondary to the commonality of shared faith in Jesus Christ.
Science and theology depict human commonality in language appropriate to each branch of knowledge. Each describes the essence of humanity. Science gives an account of the biological similarities between ethnicities and nationalities. In a 1972 study by Harvard professor Richard Lewontin, he concluded that there exists more genetic diversity within the same racial group than with other racial groups.7 Jorde and Wooding concluded similarly in 2004 the following:
Of the 0.1% of DNA that varies among individuals, what proportion varies among the main populations? Consider an appointment of Old World Populations into three continents (Africa, Asia, and Europe), a grouping that corresponds to a common view of three of the “major races.” Approximately 85-90% of genetic variation is found within these continental groups, and only an additional 10-15% of the variation is found between them….These estimates..tell us that humans vary only slightly at the DNA level and that only a small proportion of this variation separates continental populations.8
Genetics points to human commonality and not human difference. Etienne Balibar rightly asserts in Paradoxes of Universality, “Racist theories necessarily involve an aspect of sublimation, an aesthetic idealization of the species; this is why the sublimation must be achieved by the description and valorization of a certain type of man who exhibits the human ideal both in body and mind.”9 When we recognize through science that the “likeness” in our bodies is unequivocally similar biologically, this should help to change our minds about one another ethically.
Made in God’s Image
Science and theology shape our thinking, passions, and commitments, but in tandem can cause us to question our reasoning and our motivations because theology depicts humanity made in the image of God. The imago Dei describes the relationship God has with humanity. In addition, the notion of imago Dei expresses shared attributes humans have in common. Perhaps science and theology can help redeem each other. The result of this redemptive activity in the context of racial hostility can be forgiveness, repentance, justice work, and love for neighbors with different skin color.
Love cannot be quantified by science. However, it can be evidenced by how we treat one another if we are able to transcend beyond socially constructed identities. While we may not look the same, have the same culture, or believe all the same doctrines, we can abide in our distinctions by insisting on the inseparability of the God we serve. By appealing to God’s work through and beyond science and theology, we can ultimately find reconciliation in the One who makes all things new.
1. Daniel J. Fairbanks, Everyone is African: How Science Explodes the Myth of Race (Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 2015), 47.
2. Anne Marie Helmenstine, “Difference Between Hard and Soft Science,” About Education Blog, entry posted February 14, 2014, http://chemistry.about.com/b/2014/02/14/difference-between-hard-science-and-soft-science.htm (accessed November 15, 2016).
3. Fairbanks, Everyone is African, 45.
4. Ibid, 46.
5. Willie Jennings, Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011), 23.
6. Fairbanks, Everyone is African, 28.
7. Ibid, 22.
8. Fairbanks, Everyone is African, 22-23.
9. Etienne Balibar, “Paradoxes of Universality,” in Anatomy of Racism, edited by David Theo Goldberg (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1990), 292.
Kermit Cornell Moss, Sr. is a Ph.D. student in the area of Practical Theology (Christian Education and Formation) at Princeton Theological Seminary and has research interests in the intersection of theology, identity, spirituality, pneumatology, urban youth, and hip-hop/pop culture. In addition, Kermit currently serves as senior pastor of Manhattan Bible Church which is located in the Inwood neighborhood in Northern Manhattan (NYC).