Remembering a religious scholar and his groundbreaking work

Mar. 04, 2013 @ 09:16 PM

C. Eric Lincoln, the pioneering Duke University religion professor who explored the meaning of faith among African Americans, was remembered Monday evening as someone “who offered another account of what it meant to be black.”

“And that was an account many of us had never heard before,” said William Turner Jr., a professor of the practice of homiletics and pastor of Mount Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham.

Turner spoke in Goodson Chapel as part of a discussion of racial struggles among Christians and Muslims. The evening was dedicated to the work of Lincoln, who died in 2000 at the age of 75 and was author of several of the most important scholarly works on the religious experience of black Americans.

Turner, who was a student of Lincoln’s, said he “scarcely new where to begin to explain how important [his mentor] was to the sociology of religion and to the study of the black religious experience.”

Before Lincoln, “much of what we knew about black religious institutions was what some scholars said about it. What was so exciting about Dr. Lincoln and his scholarship was the methodology, the approach. He was the one who said to learn about the black religious experience, go to the people who are involved and ask them.”

“Go and investigate,” Turner said Lincoln told him. “Go where no one else has gone.”

Lawrence Mamiya, a professor of religion and Africana studies at Vassar College, and a co-author with Lincoln of “The Black Church in the African American Experience,” talked of a man who was his teacher, his mentor and his partner. Lincoln, he pointed out, was the man who “engineered and coordinated” all of the speeches by black Muslim leader Malcolm X. Lincoln was the academic who gave equal attention to black Christians and to black Muslims.

But today, Mamiya said, there is very little inter-faith dialogue between Muslims and Christians in the black community.

“Christians don’t understand Islam,” he said, and “that has led to a paucity of relationships.”

Mamiya called for more inter-faith dialogue, particularly around issues of concern to both groups — such as racial profiling and mass incarceration.

“When there is a crisis — as there is now, with extensive surveillance of the Muslim community — the two sides need to talk. Don’t try to convert the other side. The best kind of dialogue is to work together on common problems.”

Sherman Jackson, chair of the department of Islamic Thought and Culture at the University of Southern California, said that if Lincoln the religion scholar were still alive, it would be “extraordinary to start a conversation with him about black American Christians and black American Muslims as they try to seek a way into the future.”