[Editor’s Note: This essay is part of a series in which New Directions in the Study of Prayer grantees reflect on their interdisciplinary conversations about the study of prayer. The series began with Charles Hirschkind’s “Cognition and Culture, at it Again!“.]

Charles Hirschkind asks, “Does the study of prayer allow us to say anything interesting about universal attributes or faculties?” Like a good academic, I won’t directly answer this but will instead start by questioning the question itself.

We might first question the intellectualist stance that compels us to want to find universalisms or, on the contrary, to view all phenomena as results of particular historical traditions or “life-worlds.” This conversation is perhaps an exercise in examining our own theoretical stances, disciplinary assumptions, and social positionalities that compel us toward one of these two paths. But is there not a third way, a transcendent way, to understand our work? After all, both universalism and its opposite have been associated with dark periods in the histories of our disciplines (in other words, support for imperial and racializing projects and logic).

My own theoretical starting point leads me to insist that there’s always a latent politics behind what we study. Awareness of this is a crucial step. The problem is that it’s not at all clear whether our studies of prayer (and their approach to the question of universal attributes) will promote or undermine the political projects we seek. This complicates the question even further.

As a sociologist, I identify with neither “cognitivists” nor social-cultural anthropologists. (Although I do think it’s important to acknowledge the history of positivism as an ideology designed to impose order and progress on an otherwise “unruly” world.) In any case, each of our disciplines reifies certain phenomena and potentially leaves us paralyzed when it comes to saying something useful about forms of social suffering. Indeed, many of us wish to address social suffering, from the devastating effects of what we call schizophrenia, to the essentially religious persecution of Muslim minorities in Europe, to the plight of Dalits in South India. Cognitive approaches, for their part, seem to reify not only “the mind” but also cultural and ethnic categories. I fear that they risk leaving us with conclusions such as “look at how different these people are” (from the norm of American Protestantism) or conversely, “look at how these people are just like us.” Both conclusions are problematic. In its critique of cognitive approaches and its normative assumptions, social-cultural anthropology sometimes too seems guilty of reifying cultural traditions and differences. Is it really the case that all these forms of subjectivity and prayer that cognitivists try to discuss fall only within the purview of so-called Western Christianity? Even if this were the case, why does pointing this out derail all conversation? Moreover, social-cultural anthropology, or perhaps critical theory more broadly, I fear, leaves us paralyzed with its genealogies. Are genealogical analyses of the concepts with which we grapple the end-all goal of our studies? As absolutely important as they are, how do we then move forward with a coherent politics—if you believe, as some of us do, that the goal is not just to interpret the world but to change it? My own discipline, for its part, often reifies the state, leaving us paralyzed in wait for the revolution!

To return to the original question, will the study of prayer allow us to say something about universal human attributes? I think it might. But we wouldn’t know this without the immensely challenging work of translation, genealogy, and reflexivity. And ultimately, we won’t know the usefulness or worldly effects of such an endeavor. In the meantime, perhaps we should be content that what studies of prayer will show us is simply the variety of ways in which people make meaningful lives, and under conditions not of their own choosing.