The idea that I might be asked this question when in the field next year simultaneously fills me with delight and trepidation. I hope to do anthropological fieldwork in churches with Christians. But I feel just a little bit uncomfortable with the idea of engaging with research participants in prayer.
As an anthropologist, 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. 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 feel uncomfortable with praying with Christian consultants when it is something that is both natural to me and an anthropologically rich source of data?
It’s taken me weeks of incidental conversations and reading, and I’m still not sure I’ve framed this properly, but here’s my attempt at framing my discomfort…
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!