February 7, 2014

Praying According to the Law

[Editor’s Note: This post is in response to “Law’s Prayer: Town of Greece v Galloway” by Winnifred Fallers Sullivan.]

In response to Winni Sullivan’s astute analysis of Town of Greece v. Galloway, I want to probe her claim that “prayers are tamed by law,” before looking in a little more detail at the content of these public prayers. On one level, the claim is straightforward enough. Scholars of law and religion use “law’s words and law’s aesthetics” to “describe and judge” the prayers. Public prayers come under the jurisdiction of legal terminology in an analysis that is highly textual. But the more fascinating and challenging claim is that, prior to this academic surveillance operation, the pray-ers/prayers themselves have already spontaneously become law. This sounds like a contemporary Foucauldian story about the internalisation of law’s discipline. But there are also echoes of an older story, told by (for example) Aristotle, Seneca, and Paul. Law is not the real thing, the thing in itself, but an eikon (image) of the good society. The good person, the god-like person, becomes living law.


March 11, 2013

Thinking Methodologically about Prayer as Practice

What does it mean to study prayer as practice? This question implies considering prayer as a certain type of object, or at least, that the object prayer can be seen to have a minimally analogous relation to the object practice. However, it can also be understood less a possible ontology of prayer—prayer ≈ practice (rather than say, cognition, or contemplation, or ideation) —than the question of how we should study this “thing” we’re calling prayer. Given the deeply comparative nature of our project, this methodological question is paramount. And the first problem a comparative methodology must grapple with is precisely the difficultly of thinking about what prayer is, across the many varied and disparate instances being studied by the scholars in the project.

Is it possible to assume that we all know what we’re talking about when we talk about prayer? I argue that unless we all study prayer as practice, the answer to this is no. But what do I mean by “studying prayer as practice,” if the as doesn’t imply anything fundamental about the nature of prayer as such? Simply put, I want to make a plea for a Foucauldian approach to our object of study, which is not to say a theory of it, or any substantive claim about it, but rather a mode of problematizing it. Such an approach rejects the existence of a transhistorical object “prayer,” as some kind of preexisting natural object of which the particular instance under scrutiny would be one projection. Prayer understood in this way is a pure abstraction, a metaphysical object. Objects such as “the State through the ages,” or “religion” do not exist as such—these are rather objectifications created through discursive practices. Moreover, despite certain social scientific pretensions to the contrary, there is nothing “pure” or “natural” about such objects. What is taken for a transhistorical object—such as religion, the state, or prayer—generally refers to a historically specific form passing itself off as a universal, as Daniel Boyarin and Tomoko Masuzawa have shown us with regard to the concept “religion.”