May 4, 2015

Tradition, Innovation, and the Orthodox Sensorium

Sonja Luehrmann, Assistant Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at Simon Fraser University, heads a team of researchers exploring the role of the senses in Eastern Orthodox Christian prayer in Russia, Greece, the United States, Egypt, India, and Romania. Here, she tells Jennifer Lois Hahn about her research on emerging rituals in Russia related to childbirth and abortion, strategies for ensuring that prayers “reach God faster,” and the productive tension between tradition and innovation at the heart of modern Orthodox prayer. 


Jennifer Lois Hahn: How did you come to be involved in this project?

Sonja Luehrmann: The project I was involved with was a team effort to study the use of different sensory media in Eastern Orthodox Christian prayer. Prayer isn’t just something you say—it involves visual media, it involves chanting, hearing, all of that. I have been studying post-Soviet, post-socialist religion in Russia for about the past ten years, and my focus has been on a variety of religious groups, because Russia is a multi-religious, multi-ethnic country. I’ve worked with Muslims, I’ve worked with indigenous religious groups, but in recent years I’ve become more interested in the Russian Orthodox Church. I think it’s a very understudied section of Christianity, especially when you look at the English-language literature that is out there. In 2005, while I was doing this kind of more multi-religious work, I participated in a conference at the Max Planck Institute in Halle, Germany on Eastern Christians in anthropological perspective. That is where most of the collaborators for this research team met for the first time. We liked each other’s work and have stayed in touch since then. We started thinking is there something that we could do together, that would enable each of us to do our own research, but do it in a coherent way that it would complement each other, and also give us opportunities to meet up and bounce ideas off each other. [Luehrmann’s collaborators were Daria Dubovka, Jeffers Engelhardt, Angie Heo, Jeanne Kormina, Vlad Naumescu, and Simion Pop.]

JLH: Tell me about your own research project. Where did you do your fieldwork?

SL: I did research on texts and prayers in conjunction with a longer ethnographic project that I’ve been doing on new rituals that are emerging in Russia, particularly in connection with issues of childbirth and abortion. These issues did not exist to the same degree in pre-revolutionary Russia and are now requiring the elaboration of new ritual and prayer texts. I’ve been doing this research in a multi-sited way. I worked with people in Moscow, both iconographers and also people who are part of a commission to approve new liturgical texts. I’ve done research in more outlying regions. I went on a pilgrimage in the Kirov region in Russia, which is further out east near the Ural Mountains. So I’ve been looking at these aspects of ritualization of new issues in a church that is known to be very conservative. When people think of Orthodox Christianity they probably don’t think of ritual innovation, they think of people doing things that have been done for centuries.

JLH: What is distinctive about Orthodox prayer versus prayer in other traditions?

SL: One thing that I think both Orthodox Christians and non-Orthodox people think of as very distinctive is certainly the use of icons. Icons are flat, two-dimensional images traditionally painted on wooden boards that are used in prayer. They differ from Catholic art, both in the insistence that you rarely use three-dimensional statues, traditionally you have to use flat images, and also in the way that in most iconographic styles it’s very important to preserve a certain kind of canonical style and way of depicting a person. The idea is that in Orthodox art you cannot do what has often happened in Western painting since the Renaissance: painting an image of a saint and putting in the face of the person who sponsored the painting, or some other contemporary of the painter. The faces in Orthodox iconography are always fairly stylized, but the idea is that they actually give a likeness of what that saint or person looked like in real life. They’re meant to be more realistic than Catholic iconography in some way.

Another thing that is distinctive is the practice of praying with traditional texts. So this evangelical Christian idea of just having a casual chat with God—or even the post-Vatican II Catholic idea where you can also do that—is something that in Orthodox Christianity is not considered a norm. It is not even considered to be particularly desirable. So people I have talked to say, “Well, yeah, you can pray with your own words, but in the prayer book we have the words of people who were spiritually more advanced, who were monastics and who have been recognized as saints and everything. So why don’t we use their words?” The phrase that is often used is that these traditional prayers “reach God faster,” because they are inspired by the spiritual insights of the people who put together these words. In practice, often what I’ve seen people do is that they will recite some of these traditional texts and then maybe if they have a concrete request, they will add it on either silently at the end or they will actually add some language in their own words about something in particular that they are asking God for. But the main emphasis of the prayer event is always the recitation of these canonically authorized texts.

JLH: This interplay of the fixity of the textual prayer and the creativity that people bring to it is really interesting. Can you talk a little bit more about how that tension plays out?

SL: I sometimes think about it as dialing God’s telephone number to then tell God what you really want to say. The traditional text is like the telephone number. It is the way to get through to God. Then once you’ve established the connection, you feel that it’s the right moment to add what it is you wanted to say. But another way in which people get creative with these prayers is to abbreviate them. So the morning and evening prayers, if you say the whole thing, it takes about half an hour. In today’s world, not everyone has time to do that. In Russia quite a lot of Orthodox Christians I know just don’t say them. But then there are also people who will pick and choose, maybe stay a bit longer with a particular part that speaks to them on that particular day. When you look at writings by nineteenth-century Orthodox religious figures that talk specifically about how you live this Orthodox spirituality as a layperson, you actually find that as advice. They say that you do not actually have to say the whole thing for it to be valid. So abbreviation is another very common way to get creative.

Another way that people play with this is that they don’t necessarily say the prayers themselves. They can delegate that responsibility to others. That’s not the case for these daily prayers—either you say them yourself or you don’t. But if you have particular petitions or concerns, if you have a particular illness or a relative who has a particular illness, you do have a choice. For instance, do you go yourself to particular icons that are known to be helpful for a particular disease? Or do you pay money to a monastery that has this particular icon and that will do daily services in front of it, and include the name of yourself or your relative? There is this idea that certain people, either because of their spiritual merits, or just because of their position, are better at prayer, God hears them better, God hears them faster. So you can delegate your prayer requests to these people, and hope that with their intercession your cause will be furthered.

JLH: What happens in the case of extemporaneous prayer? For instance, when evangelicals are thrown into a difficult situation, they can use their own words to ask for help. What do Orthodox Christians do? Would they use the Jesus prayer, for instance?

SL: One prayer that is especially popular among Orthodox women in the moment is the Orthodox version of “Hail Mary.” It goes: “Oh Virgin birthgiver of God, rejoice, blessed Mary,” and so on. It’s a fairly short text, and it’s something that people know by heart. Many people also know a melody that goes with it so they might actually chant it. I went on a three-day walking pilgrimage with women where we came by a spring that was considered to have healing properties, so they organized bathing. But the water was also pretty cold. First the men all got to go in, and then the women, because there were no changing rooms. While some of the women were going in and having to overcome this coldness, the other women who were standing at the bank were singing Hail Mary to help them, to give them strength to do it.

The Jesus prayer is something that is a little bit more contentious. It is this very short petition, “Oh Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me the sinner,” and it kind of has this legendary status in the Orthodox world (and to some degree in the western world too) that there are these very committed spiritual people who are saying that prayer constantly in their mind. So it is less this small moment of petition, but more this idea that throughout your whole life you are always close to Jesus, and invoking Jesus. But there are also debates about it: is it good to try to do that as a layperson? Is that only something that monastics should do? If you try to do it as a layperson, could you get too caught up in your spiritual exploits and forget about life as it is? One of our collaborators, Simion Pop, was looking at that in Romania, where there is a post-Socialist revival of Orthodoxy just like in Russia. Part of that revival has been a more pronounced movement of laypeople who are very interested in the Jesus prayer and either use it as meditation tool when they go on retreats or actually have this ambition to be trying to say it their whole lives. That is an issue about which different Orthodox Christians have different opinions.

JLH: Along those lines, could you talk about the differences that you and your collaborators have seen in different parts of the world?

Sonja: One thing we noticed that was going on in all the different countries—Russia, Romania, Greece, Egypt, and India—was the search for specifically Eastern Orthodox Christian ways of praying and living spirituality that I think started sometime in the late twentieth century. In Eastern Europe and Russia, it’s very much connected to the end of socialism. But it also goes back to processes that started in the nineteenth century, a beginning to turn away from Catholic and western European influences in search for this unique and eastern spirituality. In India and to some degree also in Egypt our collaborators were seeing the same thing. For instance, in terms of painting styles, there was this desire to go back to either Byzantine iconography or even the oldest Christian styles of icon writing to be different from the Catholic images. I think we have to still do more to tease out what the different reasons are in the different countries that this is happening. Everywhere it has to do with some sort of identity politics, but also with an idea that there are natural ways in which human spirituality should express itself, and that these old, in some ways very strict, very stylized versions of iconography and chant express that best. Maybe they are most pronouncedly different from secular styles of music and art in all these countries, and there is a certain value that is being placed on that, that the religious approaches have to be very different from the secular ones.

In terms of differences, I think there are definitely differences in how open the different churches are to electronic media or any kind of technical innovations. Jeffers Engelhardt, the ethno-musicologist in our group, has found that in Greece electronic amplification of sound has become the norm, even in the smallest of monasteries on Mount Athos. Sometimes for lighting, they only use candles, but they will still have a microphone in the altar to project the sound of what the priest is saying, even in a tiny chapel where everyone could perfectly hear everything that is being said. In Romania we saw the same thing, whereas in Russia there is much more hesitance against using any kind of these electronic means. It is extreme in monasteries. Another one of our collaborators, Daria Dubovka, did long-term fieldwork in a number of convents in Russia. She has very interesting stories about technology there. In some places you were allowed to have a laptop but not a phone. In other places, nothing at all was allowed. But basically in Russia there was this idea that there was something morally suspect about new technologies and you don’t really want to have them.

JLH: In terms of what holds it all together, what makes Orthodoxy, Orthodoxy, you have mentioned Birgit Meyer’s concept of an aesthetic formation. Could you explain what that is?

SL: I understand aesthetic formation as referring to a style that connects a number of churches or geographical contexts and gives a loose coherence to something that doesn’t have a common institutional body. That is one of the reasons that we’re using it for the Orthodox church, because different from the Catholic Church, there is no pope in Eastern Christianity that would give you a general line on the opinion of the Orthodox Churches on something. There are bishops. There are patriarchs. In most contexts the patriarch is the national head of the church, but he’s really considered to be primus inter pares [first among equals], the one of who has administrative authority, but whose word on doctrine is not necessarily higher than that of the other bishops. So in the absence of this kind of institutional structure, we like this term “aesthetic formation” to think about common ways of responding to media. So for instance, I was just talking about these common debates in different countries about how do we go back to whatever it is we understand as a Byzantine, Eastern Christian, or Orthodox style. That is something that Orthodox people from Romania and Russia and India, if they could somehow get together and to talk about it, they would mean similar things. But at the same time, they might have very different political ideas about what the church should be about or very different historical experiences. Still, there is a common resonance around a certain kind of sound or visual impression. That’s what we meant by aesthetic formation.

JLH: Many of the NDSP grantees seem to have been attracted to the concept of “embodiment” as a new way of thinking about prayer. How has that theoretical orientation informed your group’s focus on the senses?

SL: I think, for us, embodiment was an overarching category under which you can bring together the study of different senses. Part of what we’re interested in for our research is the question of why do you have to have all these different sensory media? Why can’t it be just text or just icons or just chant? There seems to be this abundant saturation that somehow helps people feel that they are in a holy place, that their prayer is going to be heard, that their prayer is in some way appropriate to God. Praying is not something that you just do with the mind or the eyes or the mouth, but you do it as a whole person. What icons do for instance with visual media, is they help the person who is praying orient their body in a certain way. It’s not just about having eye contact with the saint whom you’re venerating, but how you’re standing, you’re facing the icon, you’re orienting your body in a certain way. When Orthodox Christians go to Western Europe and visit Catholic churches, one of the things they talk about is how strange it is to pray at a statute. This bodily orientation toward a three-dimensional body on a pedestal is very different than praying to a flat image that is in front of you. So I think in people’s own sense of what it means to pray and how to pray well, bodily posture and bodily integration of various sensory input is very important, just intuitively. That’s maybe one reason why so many of our researchers in this grant project as a whole are picking up on that.

JLH: What do you think that the overall New Directions in the Study of Prayer project would be missing if Orthodox Christianity hadn’t been included as a focus of study?

SL: That’s an interesting question. Well, let me turn it around to ask: what is the unique thing that you can see in Orthodox Christianity that is maybe not as clear in other religious traditions? On the one hand, the study of the senses is very important, and we were very much interested in that, but we also always found ourselves pointed back to the institution and the community of the Church. I think in some other contexts, it can be relatively easy to study prayer as this kind of individual activity, this way that people bring out their own innermost wishes or thoughts and bring them up to God. Or a way that people develop themselves and work on themselves ethically, as in a lot of current research on spirituality and self-development. In Orthodox Christianity, I think all of that happens, but I think it is also always very clear that people develop their own styles and preferences and experiences of prayer in relation to this very strong authorizing discourse of the institution. Being Orthodox means that you are part of a tradition of prayer and theological debate. So we understand the Orthodox Church in some ways as Talad Asad talks about Islam, as a discursive tradition. It’s a tradition in which people have argued, people have had all kinds of positions, but in order to do something and call it Orthodox you always have to be able to tie it to somebody’s authoritative position, the position of one of the church fathers, even though maybe all of the other church fathers disagreed with it. The strength of the institution and its authorizing discourses for people’s experience of what is proper and effective prayer, that is something that sometimes can be forgotten in the sensory turn in recent years. The Orthodox Church brings the two perspectives together by showing that yes, the sensory media are very important, and people use them in all sorts of creative ways that are not necessarily authorized by the institution, but they are also always very conscious of their placement in this hierarchy of experts, of the need to get the blessing of your priest in order to do a certain sequence of prayers.

JLH: How does your work on anti-abortion activists in Russia relate to these tensions between the individual and the institutional?

SL: The paradox of the issue of abortion in Russia is that the Russian Orthodox Church nowadays very strongly opposes it and the state is also starting to become more critical of it, mainly because of concerns with the birthrate. On the one hand the church is very opposed to abortion, on the other hand, abortion was the method of fertility control in the Soviet Union. So pretty much any woman you meet who is over 40 or 50, unless she had fertility problems, or she didn’t have a heterosexual partner, she will have had multiple abortions. These elderly and middle-aged-women are also the main support of any Russian Orthodox congregation. Just like in the United States, Christianity is very feminized and dominated by older people. So the church is telling its most faithful parishioners that they’re terrible sinners who have to repent of these murders that they committed during their youth. But the church is also developing these rituals that you can do to expiate your past abortions. And that is often where prayer comes in. There is an icon that has been created of what is known as the slaughter of the innocents in the West, the incident where King Herod had all these children under two killed in the attempt to kill Jesus, that has been adopted as kind of the symbol of aborted fetuses. There was no traditional iconographic depiction of that scene in its own right. I actually interviewed the iconographer who in the 1990s wrote the first full-size prayer icon of this episode in consultation with a priest. So there are these new prayer media, and there are also official prayers that the church recommends women say for their aborted fetuses. But then there are also ways in which women actually pray for aborted fetuses. The main difference between them is whether or not the women come up with a name for the aborted fetus. The church very emphatically says no, because the only way that a name can be conferred is through baptism, and of course having died before being able to live outside the womb, it is not possible for these children to have been baptized. Whereas there are these unofficial rites that are coming up, by which you actually sort of posthumously baptize your aborted fetus, and then you have a name that allows you to participate in official church prayer. So again, that’s a place where we see that the sensory media and experience is one thing, but the little mark of institutional belonging—do you actually have a baptismal name for someone you want to pray for or not—can become very important in the minds of laypeople, more important than the whole long text that might be around it.

December 9, 2014

Announcing Why Prayer? A Conference on New Directions in the Study of Prayer

The Social Science Research Council’s program on Religion and the Public Sphere announces Why Prayer? A Conference on New Directions in the Study of Prayer (February 6-7, 2015). This two-day gathering will showcase the work of over 30 scholars and journalists exploring what the study of prayer can tell us about a range of topics.

Please join us February 6-7, 2015, for panels and presentations on topics including religious technologies, embodiment, material culture, language, politics, and the mind. Beginning Friday afternoon, the conference will also feature the Prayer Expo—a pop-up installation of multi-media presentations and material objects that call attention to the myriad representations of prayer shaping discourse and practice. On Saturday, two plenary events will highlight the multiple registers of engagement occasioned by new, transdisciplinary research on the practice of prayer.

For more information on the conference and how to register, please click here. Registration is free, but space is limited.

September 29, 2014

Praying with the Body: An Experimental Challenge to Mind/Body Dualism in the Psychology of Religion

Mark Aveyard, an assistant professor of psychology at the American University of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates, is using his knowledge of embodied cognition to study how the position and movement of the body during prayer relates to higher-level cognitive processes such as decision-making, language processing, and emotion. Aveyard, whose work is supported by the SSRC’s New Directions in the Study of Prayer Initiative, recently spoke with Jennifer Lois Hahn about the difficulties of experimental design, WEIRD research subjects, and the impact of culture on the way we think, use our bodies, and in some cases, use our bodies to think.


JLH: Could you start by explaining to someone who’s unfamiliar with embodied cognition what it is and how it differs from other models of cognition?

MA: We tend to talk about the mind in a kind of dualistic language. We tend to think of our minds as mental and our bodies as physical, and that these are separate domains. This dualism is reinforced by our religious beliefs, certainly. I think it’s reinforced partly because it’s useful to think of things in that way and by the fact that when we compare ourselves to many animals it does seem that we have these certain mental capacities that are extremely sophisticated. It’s very tempting to think of these as being almost disembodied, as being part of our human spirit in a way. That dualism has often carried over into more academic theories about the mind as well. Not that people are talking about souls and spirits any more, but they are talking about representations in the mind that are disconnected from bodily processes or not closely intertwined with them. The analogy I sometimes use with my students is a scene in the movie “The Matrix.” Somebody essentially gets plugged into a computer and they learn things about the world just by having information downloaded into the brain. This idea that you can fill your brain with data in the absence of physical experience has been very influential in the way that we think about the mind academically. So you have theories in robotics and computational science that try to model the brain with purely abstract symbols, with zeros and ones. If you just think about numbers and mathematics, about concepts like time and infinity, these seem to be very disconnected from the way that we move from one room to the next, or the way that we learn to walk or ride a bike, which seem like very physical activities. So I’m sympathetic to this dualistic mindset because I think it’s useful in some ways. But where it falls short is that it underestimates the contribution that bodily experience is making to those higher-level cognitive processes. Research on embodied cognition is showing that in mental processes like mathematics, the mind is often recruiting bodily processes in order to understand the things that it needs to understand. The same thing is true for language comprehension. Using language seems to be something that is pretty disconnected from the body. A lot of people out there are working on artificial intelligence programs for understanding language, and that may be theoretically possible—embodiment doesn’t say that comprehension of language absolutely needs, in all cases and at all times, a body. But it does argue that human beings use the body to understand language and that when, say, you read a sentence about somebody walking, running, or throwing something, you are understanding that sentence not just in some kind of dictionary sense, but that you are actually recruiting your own bodily understanding of how those actions are done. So whatever neurons you are activating when you, yourself, walk or run or throw, some of that network is being recruited when you read a sentence about somebody doing the same thing. In other words, having experienced something bodily is helping you understand everyday conversation about similar actions. It wasn’t obvious to cognitive scientists many years ago that that might be the case because things like language, mathematics, decision-making, and judgment seem so abstract in their nature and disconnected from the bodily experiences. But we’ve seen a shift over the years as we’ve accumulated more and more evidence that these higher-level processes are actually actively drawing on these so-called lower-level processes of motor, sensory, and perceptual experience. 

JLH: It’s striking that embodied cognition has not been studied more widely in the context of religion.

MA: It has been studied extensively by anthropologists, especially in ethnography, but anthropologists tend to be interested in the social ramifications of those rituals and what each of those bodily movements or adornments are supposed to express in terms of the theology of the religion. There is no focus whatsoever on what the motor movement itself is supposed to contribute when people do those rituals. So if you are a Christian and you pray by putting your hands together and closing your eyes, what is that doing for you besides making you feel as if you are doing what you are supposed to be doing as you pray? If you are Muslim and you are going through the Muslim prayer ritual, which has a predefined series of steps that were outlined by the prophets, what does that contribute? It’s easy to miss the importance of the motor rituals beyond this sort of traditional standpoint because it’s easy to adopt a dualistic framework when thinking about religion. In fact, that is what most religious people tend to do implicitly when they describe the rituals that they go through in their religion. If you ask people what is important in prayer they tend to focus on the most mentalistic or even spiritualistic aspects of prayer. Not surprisingly, they don’t reflect very much on what bodily movements contribute to all of the other stuff they think is important in prayer. What is the connection between moving your body in a certain way and adopting a certain position and these higher-level cognitive processes in regard to what you’re thinking about, what decisions you’re making, what kind of spiritual feeling you’re having? What is the connection between moving your body in a certain way and your concerns for your family, for the state of the world around you, for the state of your soul? 

JLH: How did you go about trying to answer such complex questions experimentally? 

MA: In the basic paradigm, we bring participants into the lab and tell them they’re going to be doing a very simple exercise study. In fact, half of the participants will be going through a series of motions similar to those they go through in their prayers within their religion. The other half will be going through a series of motions that are not related to prayer in their religion. We expect that just going through these motions without being aware of their religious nature will have some effect on the next task that they do in the experiment. What we want to see is that they show stronger religious cognition when they’ve gone through motor movements that are associated with prayer versus movements that are not associated with prayer. It’s important that they make no connection between the movements that they did earlier and the measurement that we’re conducting. When we first started out, the problem was that when they were going through the movements themselves they were becoming aware that this must have something to do with religion. So we really struggled to create procedures that were authentically religious where the motor movements corresponded to prayer movements in Islam but were not so obvious that people would become aware of it. That was actually much more difficult than I imagined. We wanted to show that just doing something physically, even if you’re not even thinking about what that’s associated with, can influence subsequent religious thinking—that the body, just in it’s own capacity, can influence cognition in some surprising ways. So that’s why we wanted to isolate that, the influence of those motor movements.

JLH: You conducted a number of different experiments to try to shed light on how those motor movements affect cognition. Can you tell me more about some them and what you found?

MA: In one experiment participants were asked to look at a series of words on screen and memorize them. Most of these words were non-religious words, but we threw in a small subset of religious words. While they were memorizing these words, they were either holding their hands up in a way that corresponded to the first part of the Islamic prayer ritual or in a way that did not. Then we had them take a break for a moment and we came back and we presented another series of words and asked them to press a button in order to indicate whether that word was present in the original set or not. While they responded to these words they adopted the original position that they had adopted in the first part of the experiment, either congruent or incongruent with prayer. What we found is that when they adopted a congruent position, both in the training and the test phase, they were much faster to respond to religious words that had been present in the original phase—more so than the words that had nothing to do with religion. We also found that those in the incongruent condition, who were adopting a position that is not consistent with the first part of the Islamic prayer ritual, were responding slower to the religious words. This seems to indicate that the position in which they are holding their hands is slowing them down because it’s inconsistent with the associations they have made over the years between the words that we are presenting on screen in Arabic and the position that they should be in. It’s as if their mind thinks, “I’m seeing a religious word on screen, but I feel like I should be in a different bodily position when I’m responding to that word,” and so it takes just a little bit longer for their minds to adjust to that and then to say, “Oh, yes, this is a religious word that I saw earlier in the first part of the experiment.” We followed that up with another study where we had them adopt the same positions, congruent or incongruent with Islamic prayer, and this time, instead of having them respond to words they saw in the training phase, we presented them with incomplete words on screen and asked them to fill in the last letter to complete the word. So they might see the letters G-O on screen, and then a blank, and they could fill it in with a word that wasn’t religious, like GOT, or they could fill in that word with a religious word, which would be GOD. What we find is that when they are holding a position consistent with the Islamic prayer ritual, they complete that task with religious words more often. So what we’re showing is that just by being in a certain type of physical position, it’s as if you are preparing your mind to think religiously. It may be that one of the core functions of using the body in religious rituals is a way of preparing yourself to be in the mindset that you need to be in in order to satisfy the general function of your religion.

JLH: Where does culture fits into all of this? The cognitive science of religion is often criticized for being too universalistic, for not giving enough consideration to the effects of culture on cognition.

MA: I think culture is a big challenge for embodiment researchers. Everybody in every culture has a body. By and large, the vast majority of human beings walk upright and have two legs, two arms, ten digits and so on. Because of this, we tend to assume that a lot of these embodied processes in cognition must be universal and must develop in very similar ways. I was just in the Netherlands presenting the results of some of my work on the SSRC project. Of course you notice when you’re in the Netherlands that lots of people ride bikes. Where I work in Dubai, virtually nobody rides bikes. So there may be these cultural differences in terms of the types of motor movements you do, but the assumption is usually that the rules that the brain follows to connect motor movements to higher-level processes like language comprehension or decision making must be universal. I don’t think we should be making that assumption. I think that’s something that’s going to have to be demonstrated empirically. It could be that embodiment is very flexible culturally and that the cultural differences between the way people use their bodies has a very big impact on higher-level processes. For instance, there are some cultures where people are used to thinking in terms of arithmetic operations and there are some where that’s just not the case. Not only does that make for a large cultural difference and important psychological differences but maybe that’s also connected to the motor behaviors and sensory perceptual experiences that people grow up with in those cultures. I don’t know. I think we need to be careful about it. Given that cross-cultural differences in cognition have been revealed to be fairly significant in many cases, I think that embodiment researchers need to think carefully about the role of culture in embodiment. I don’t have a theory of that yet, but it is something that I have been thinking about.

JLH: How do you think that embodiment researchers might better test for the effects of culture?

MA: When it comes to religion, the big challenge for psychology right now is just to get out there and do research in different religious contexts—to study non-Western and non-monotheistic religious traditions in more depth in order to test out theories on subjects other than the typical American college student. Also, the challenge is to conduct more international collaboration projects and to try to put some more of the psychology of religion into the replication projects that are going on in psychology right now. That’s easier said than done. There’s a little bit of an irony here in that to establish a lab in a culture that isn’t represented very well in psychology is very difficult, because these are often cultures that do not have the sort of Westernized values that help build up research universities in the first place. So if a culture doesn’t value psychology and doesn’t fund it, and if people aren’t going to university and choosing to major in psychology, it’s pretty difficult then to have a presence for psychological research in those contexts. There’s a lot of criticism about WEIRD psychology, the fact that psychological studies tend to rely on subjects that are from Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic societies. The idea is that most of our participants are these WEIRD participants who are not like most people in the world. That’s true with psychology of religion as well. I think there’s been a lot of criticism about that, particularly in social psychology, but I think it’s actually much harder to do research in other contexts, and I say that partly from personal experience.

JLH: Can you talk a little bit about your experience working in Dubai and how living in the Middle East has changed your view on prayer?

MA: After I moved to Dubai, the experience of cultural difference really inspired me to think about conducting research there on culture and specific aspects of culture, like religion. For nearly all of my students, religion is an important aspect of their lives, either as something that they follow in a very traditional sense or as something that they are sort of exploring in a more individualistic way. I had so many conversations with students in my first few years there about religion and culture that I started asking myself why I wasn’t doing any research on those topics. I also saw an opportunity to conduct research in a setting that virtually nobody else was conducting research in. When I first started doing research on psychology of religion about three years ago, I didn’t know of anybody else in the Arab world who was doing this type of research experimentally. Since then, I’ve seen a couple papers coming out from other researchers in the Middle East and North Africa, but it’s a large area of the world, in which there are very few psychology labs and a lot of instability, so it’s hard to attract people to this part of the world to set up a lab and commit to cross-cultural research.

Living in Dubai has changed my view of psychology in general. I have a much greater appreciation for the power of culture in a way that I think I would not have appreciated if I had moved to London or Berlin or some place where there was a lot of common cultural currency between my place of immigration and my place of origin in the United States. The power of culture in everyday thinking and decision-making and emotional life has struck me as being a much bigger deal than it’s typically regarded as in psychology, particularly in cognitive psychology, where universalist assumptions are predominant.

July 2, 2014

Embodiment in Orthodox Prayer and Spirituality

This article is an extension of Connective Implications of the Material Holy, our essay on Orthodox material and sensory cultures that was published here on Reverberations last fall. Eastern Orthodox worship, prayer, and devotional activities are composed of sensory and material cultures that are deployed and employed through kinetic, embodied gestures and rituals, both vernacular and institutional. In other words, prayer and worship in the Orthodox Church are embodied. We understand embodiment as physical acts of engaging with ritual, liturgical, or holy items located in both the parish and the private domus (home), but also in the kinetic contouring of the body in ways that are both restrictive (i.e. rigorous fasting) and communal (i.e. ritual forgiveness).

We employ the term embodiment in a phenomenological and, to a slightly lesser extent, theological sense. Embodiment draws together the sensorial and the physical, highlighting the body as the locus of experience, while also pointing to the inclusion of the person within a larger network or system. Focusing on lived religion requires, according to Robert Orsi, an emphasis on embodied praxis in a variety of environments. Embodiment is crucial for understanding the devotional activities of Orthodox Christians since each devotee is an actor in the socio-religious drama that unfolds in both liturgical and community spaces. Orthodoxy itself proclaims that it possesses a living tradition and theology, which is embodied in believers and manifested through their actions, especially through prayer and spirituality. Thus, examining the physical worship practices of Orthodox adherents allows for a deeper understanding of lived Orthodox theology and beliefs.


June 6, 2013

Walking Prayer

[Editor’s Note: This essay resides within Anderson Blanton’s “The Materiality of Prayer,” a portal into Reverberations’ unfolding compendium of resources related to the study of prayer.]

Prayer Walk: Praying for the Heart of Hamilton

This Saturday from 12:00pm to 2:00pm, you’re invited to walk through the city to pray for renewal, reconciliation, and restoration to the glory of God. Folks will gather at Offerings Prayer Ministry on Main Street, go out in pairs or small groups to walk and pray, and then meet back up at Offerings to discuss the experience. For more details, check out the Facebook Event page.

 Prayer is one of the most powerful ways we can serve our city, and it’s one of our core values. We’ve taught on prayer, its power, and specifically how you can be praying for one another, The Village, and all the people of Hamilton. If you’re available for a couple of hours on Saturday afternoon, grab a friend or group of friends and head into the city to pray for God to move among his people.

I received this invitation in March 2011, the feature in an email newsletter. The invitation’s source was The Village, an evangelical church that began in October 2009 in the small post-industrial city of Hamilton, Ohio. The Village is a theologically conservative, non-denominational congregation affiliated with the church planting network, Acts 29. In step with the majority of the nearly 400 other Acts 29 churches, The Village seeks to be “city-focused.” Elsewhere, I have explored the emerging pattern of re-urbanizing evangelicals who are moving against the grain of 20th century evangelical suburbanization. One of The Village’s founding documents was their “Vision for the City of Hamilton” statement, which includes this imperative: “Love for the City. We want the residents of Hamilton to love this city, and we want the residents of other cities to know we love the city. This means that we’ll take on the burdens of the city and work for its good, because what’s good for Hamilton is good for us.”

As the newsletter invitation suggests, one strategy for loving Hamilton and taking on its burdens is to organize regular prayer walks throughout the city. In a secular liberal frame, this might not seem like any kind of actual strategy. As Kevin O’Neill observed of neo-Pentecostal citizenship in Guatemala, disappointment lurks when secularized expectations size up religious projects. Here, what can prayer do to combat the ravages of de-industrialization and urban disinvestment? Obviously, The Village operates in a different frame, one in which prayer is transformative. But, the power attributed to prayer is not the only thing to observe. We must also account for the kind of prayer we are dealing with. Namely, walking prayer is the kind of prayer that makes little sense outside of its materiality, and exemplifies the need to theorize prayer outside of “a history of abstraction.”