Will you pray with me?

Should anthropologists pray with people when they’re doing fieldwork? Is there any difference if you’re a Christian anthropologist rather than a non-Christian anthropologist? Most people I’ve spoken to think it’s perfectly OK for anthropologists to pray with people in the field. Nonetheless, I’ve been struggling with a gut-level discomfort about doing so.

Last week I was given the opportunity to present on just this issue at the University of Melbourne’s Ethnography Forum. Here’s what I said…

I suspect most people in this room have some experience of the Christian practice of prayer. Some of you may be Christians, some of you may have been to Christian church services — perhaps at Christmas, Easter, for weddings or baptisms — some of you may have been taught prayers as a child and some of you will have read anthropological treatments of Christian prayer. The range of ways and places in which Christians pray vary from denomination to denomination and I suspect the range of experiences in this room will be really varied. So I want to be clear about the particular context of praying with people as part of an anthropological project that has been causing me some consternation.

I am a pretty orthodox Protestant Christian. It is a feature of many of my friendships with other Christians, that in the course of conversation about something particularly meaningful (whether it’s happy, or stressful, or sad) one of us might turn to the other and say “would you like me to pray about that for you?” or “will you pray with me about this?” And it’s this kind of situation that I both hope for in the field, but am also a little bit nervous about.

You see, this prayer isn’t scripted. As Shoaps (2002) reflects in her study of public prayer in Pentecostal church services, the only ritualistic elements are the fact that the prayer will begin with some kind of address to God and end with some kind of formal closing statement (most often – Amen). The content can be anticipated in the context of the relationship you share and the subject matter of the conversation that you’ve been having, but it is not known in the way the Lord’s Prayer is known.

As an anthropologist, this kind of prayer is fascinating. It can reveal the inner desires of the heart. It puts emotions and longings into words. It connects the pray-er’s understanding of God and God’s will with their own actions and desires. Marcel Mauss (2003) calls prayer a phenomenon in which ritual is united with belief; “In the case of prayer…the demands of language are such that often the prayer itself will specify the precise circumstances and motives which give rise to it.” As a source of data – and as a relational expression of having connected with your research consultants, to be invited to pray together seems like a (forgive the pun) holy grail of anthropological research with Christians.

So, why do I still feel uncomfortable about with praying with Christian consultants when it is something that is both natural to me and an anthropologically rich source of data. As I’ve tried to dig up the root cause of my gut discomfort, I’ve come up with a few ‘ethical’ or pragmatic reasons and one more philosophical or hermeneutical reason.

Pragmatically speaking, I think there’s a danger when accepting the invitation to pray with a consultant that a Christian anthropologist is assumed to understand what’s going on in a way that a non-Christian anthropologist might not be. Even though the theology and practice of prayer can be radically different in different traditions. What if we don’t share the same understanding about what’s going on?

Joining someone in prayer, there is an expression of partnership — fellowship. In praying together, you join with someone else in owning their petitions to God. You, quite literally, put your amen to their prayer. To say ‘amen’ to someone else’s prayer implies you share their objectives, the desires expressed in their prayer. What if we don’t share the same desires and objectives?

My husband and I had lunch with a minister and his wife a couple weeks ago, and as conversation wound up for the afternoon, the minister said “I never know what to do in these situations, do we pray, do we not pray…” at which point his wife cut in with “You don’t need to spiritualise everything”. And we all agreed. While I’m always a Christian, and at some level all of life is ‘spiritual’, I think praying with consultants could unhelpfully ‘spiritualise’ the research project/process.

But with just a little bit of reflection and conversation, I’ve realised many of these issues can be solved by working hard at communication. Some of the strategies that have been developed as I’ve talked this through over the last few weeks are things like:

  • Asking participants what they think it would mean for us to pray together;
  • Talking about desires that might not be shared after the prayer is concluded and clarifying the research project; and
  • Suggesting that perhaps they could pray and I could listen.

But even having worked through all of that, I still find myself uncomfortable. After much introspection, I’m still not sure I’ve framed this properly, but I’m going to try out this way of framing my problem: when I pray I am oriented to God and when I do cultural analysis I am oriented to the speaker, to the world. As a Christian, I share both the ritual practice and the belief that what I am doing in prayer is directed to God. To turn away from God towards another person during that act, I think, makes a liar out of me when I say “yes, I will pray with you”. I do not know if it’s possible to both pray and analyse, and I suspect I will only find out in the field!

Mauss M (2003) On Prayer, Durkheim Press/Berghahn Books, New York.

Shoaps R (2002) ” “Pray Earnestly”: The Textual Construction of Personal Involvement in Pentecostal Prayer and Song”, Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 12(1): 34-71.

Your thoughts, reflections and suggestions are welcome!


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