June 4, 2013

The Ivory Tower in Cyberspace

When I went back to graduate school in my 40s, I took with me years of having produced films, network TV programs, and a mass-market book. I thought the theological faculty would be impressed. They were not, except for my advisor who saw the potential for mass-media religious education. My qualifications and publishing record was enough to get me into a Master of Arts program at Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York, but I quickly discovered that academia and mass-media didn’t relate very well with each other.

Also against me was that I was “a believer.” I soon learned that the worship department stood on its own; it didn’t interface much with the academic lines. I found that odd. I still don’t understand why departments of religion and divinity schools separate faith and analytics. Is faith and worship too soft? Certainly a subject for some research.

Then again, everyone I knew at the time warned me not to go to graduate school to study theology. As a matter of fact, the founder of a major mass-market spirituality magazine told me bluntly, “don’t study religion or you’ll lose your faith!” I actually had the opposite experience.  Studying ancient writings in asceticism, and in doctrine, and mystical practices served to increase my faith. Now, I’m able to add what I learned in historical-critical context.


May 14, 2013

Prayer and Presence in Unexpected Places

[Editor’s Note: This post is in response to Real Presences: Catholic Prayer as Intersubjectivity, Robert Orsi’s portal into Reverberations’ unfolding compendium of resources related to the study of prayer.]

When I was a doctoral student many years ago, Bob Orsi insisted I pay attention to sacred presences in the Pagan rituals I was studying. As a student trained in a field still coming to terms with its theological past, I had not been looking for real presence. Practices and gestures, social relationships and structures: I thought these were the important elements of ritual worthy of my consideration. But Bob has consistently made us aware of what historians of religion and other religious studies scholars have so pointedly ignored. His prayer portal, “Real Presences: Catholic Prayer as Intersubjectivity,” helped me to reconsider the ways in which prayer is transposed from religious traditions like Catholicism into the unexpected places that I study: backyards where Neopagans raised Catholic pray to statues of the Madonna, who is nestled next to images of Pan and Gaia; a protest site sprinkled with holy water by agnostic radical environmentalists; a temple for the dead at the Burning Man festival decorated with prayer flags by recent converts to Buddhism; and a New Age dance church where former Protestant evangelicals “sweat their prayers.”

I am curious about how presence adapts to and changes in unexpected places, the fluidity with which practices like prayer move across religious boundaries and identities and take on new meanings in new contexts. (Of course this happens within older traditions as well, as Bob’s work on religion in the streets and cities has taught us.)


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.”


February 27, 2013

What Can the Study of Prayer Tell Us?

Noguchi, Water Garden, NYC via flickr user lao_ren100 What can the study of prayer tell us – about social life, religious institutions and practices, shared and unique concepts of communication, and ethical self-formation? New Directions in the Study of Prayer supports research that seeks to better understand prayer, in its many forms, but that also considers how the varied practices (from the textual to the embodied) associated with prayer may influence broader questions about social and human concerns. This SSRC initiative is thus working to broaden the study of prayer beyond the relatively narrow range of questions that has recently shaped scholarly discourse and interest. Indeed, we have noted that the relatively limited scope of high profile research on prayer reinforces a widely (if implicitly) held view that prayer is of marginal interest to scholars whose work is focused on themes and issues generally deemed more consequential for modern life.

In so doing, the initiative has taken a broad approach to defining prayer, and likewise how it might be understood as an object of study. Prayer is, understandably, defined and described in many ways that impinge, productively, on the disciplines (and tools and theories) used to engage it. As we are well aware, prayer’s boundaries and its distinction from other kinds of activity (meditation, for example) are not always clear. What appears to be a clear and salient definition in the psychological laboratory, for example, may be quite different from the anthropological or legal definitions that are useful and uncontested in other social contexts. An exciting and central part of our program is to engage these linked definitional and disciplinary issues head-on. We thus believe that to produce a more expansive and nuanced body of research on prayer, scholars must develop an enlarged understanding of the variety of disciplinary approaches operative in the study of prayer throughout the academy, and of the distinctive questions, methodologies, commitments, and presuppositions that govern each.