Have anthropologists and scholars of religion learned to think about prayer in a way that is not condescending to people who pray? The description of prayer the great Franz Boas (1858-1942) offered a century ago leaves room for doubt. Boas defines prayer, along with bloody sacrifice and other rites, as an effort to impose one’s will, or a collective will, on a supernatural power (cite below the fold). Prayer for Boas has a manipulative purpose, whereas prayer for some other end, such as communion with one’s God, is apparently so anomalous that Boas comes close to leaving it unmentioned.
The subtext of Boas’s definition of prayer as manipulation is clear. If prayer is first and foremost a primitive technology – ineffective, it goes without saying – it is natural to conclude that it is something a modern human being will do without. It comes as no surprise therefore that Boas was an adherent of the New York Society for Ethical Culture, a congregation dedicated since 1876 to "education, growth, and social service" outside of any theological framework. The biblio and bio of Franz Boas hang together. Absolutely nothing wrong with that.
But if anthropologists of all people find it impossible to separate description from prescription, what chance is there that others will learn to describe prayer from the ground level, attempting to see others as they see themselves? Perhaps scholars of religion who are religious believers have a better chance of thinking about prayer from an insider’s point of view. Or perhaps they will try too hard to universalize particulars. Often they have refused to universalize, such that “good” prayer belongs to their tradition and “bad” prayer to the tradition of others. Describing prayer in language and categories that both those who pray and those who do not find acceptable remains an ambitious project.
One of the finest features of Reading Akkadian Prayers is that Alan Lenzi, the volume’s general editor, seeks to construe prayers and hymns in a religious studies perspective (pp. 2-8 of the Introduction). I will hold off on interacting with Alan’s observations until the volume is available to all.
In the meantime, to prime the pump, I reproduce and comment briefly on the “Prayer” entry penned by Franz Boas in the fantastic old Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico, edited by Frederick Webb Hodge. The two volumes of this handbook appeared as “Bulletin 30” of the Bureau of American Ethnology of the Smithsonian Institution in 1907 and 1910, respectively. The entries that follow, “Prayer Sticks” and “Praying Indians,” will also interest students of the Bible and the Ancient Near East: I plan to explain why in future posts.
In their endeavors to secure the help of the supernatural powers, the Indians, and other peoples, hold principally three methods: (1) The powers may be coerced by the strength of a ritualistic performance; (2) their help may be purchased by gifts in the form of sacrifices and offerings; or (3) they may be approached by prayer. Frequently the coercing ritualistic performance and the sacrifice are accompanied by prayers; or the prayer itself may take a ritualistic form, and thus attain coercive power. In this case the prayer is called an incantation. Prayers may either be spoken words, or they may be expressed by symbolic objects, which are placed so that they convey the wishes of the worshipper to the powers.
The rituals of the Plains tribes and those of the Pueblos contain many prayers. Thus in the Hako ceremony of the Pawnee occurs a prayer-song in which the father of the powers is invoked to send needed help; in the Sun dance (q. v.) of the Arapaho occur prayers to the “Man-Above” for assistance in the performance of the ceremony; the Zuňi ceremonials contain prayers for rain, food, and health; the Ilupa of California offer a prayer accompanying their ceremonials asking for health. Prayers accompanying rituals are rather rare on the N. Pacific coast. Very often prayers accompany sacrifices. they are given when tobacco smoke is offered to the gods; they accompanied bloody sacrifices of the Pawnee and the Iroquois, as well as the sacrifices of pollen among the Navaho. Prayers of this kind very commonly accompany the sacrifice of food to the souls of the deceased, as among the Algonquian tribes, Eskimo, and N.W. Coast Indians.
The custom of expressing prayers by means of symbolic objects is found principally among the Southwestern tribes (see “Prayer sticks”). Prayers are often preceded by ceremonial purification, fasting, the use of emetics and purgatives, which are intended to make the person praying agreeable to the powers. Among the North American Indians the prayer cannot be considered as necessarily connected with sacrifice or as a substitute for sacrifice, since in a great many cases prayers for good luck, for success, for protection, or for the blessing of the powers, are offered quite independently of the idea of sacrifice. While naturally material benefits are the object of prayer in by far the majority of cases, prayers for an abstract blessing and for ideal objects are not by any means absent.
Among the northern Californian tribes and among the Eskimo the prayer is often pronounced in a set form, the effectiveness of which is not due to the willingness of the supernatural powers to take pity on the mortal, but to the set form in which the prayer is delivered, the prayer formula or the incantation being a charm by means of which the fulfillment of the prayer can be secured. The incantation may be effective through its power to coerce the supernatural powers to comply with the wish of the person praying, or it may act as a charm which gives fulfillment by its own inherent power. The Indians pray not only to those supernatural powers which are considered the protectors of man — like the personal guardians or the powers of nature — but also to the hostile powers that must be appeased. See Ceremonies, Mythology, Religion, Sacrifice. (F[ranz] B[oas]).
Prayer according to Boas is an app designed to obtain something one wants from a supernatural power. The really awesome kind is able, if only in theory, to force the hand of a power greater than one’s own. As Ruth Benedict might have put it – Benedict was a student of Boas – if sacrifice is in her words “control by gift” and divination “control by foreknowledge,” prayer is control by language or, no less prototypically, a verbal description and accompaniment of actions performed to “please and gratify the supernatural.” Benedict’s example.
The Winnebago of the region of the Great Lakes pray to the Thunderbird: "Oh grandfather, Thunderbird, here I stand with tobacco in my hand. Grant us what you granted our grandfathers! Accept our humble offering of tobacco. We are sending you buckskins from which you can make moccasins, feathers from which you can make a headdress; we are preparing a meal for you from the meat of an animal who is like ourselves. And not I alone, but all the members of my clan and all the members of the other clans present here, beseech you to accept our gifts. We have prepared ourselves fitly, and I and all my kinsmen sit here humble in heart, a sight to awaken pity, so that we can receive your blessing and live a good life."1
What is wrong with this picture - not the prayer, which is beautiful, but the construal of prayer as control by language?
To be sure, prayer is often prescribed in order to resolve a problem, as in so many “Our Father’s” and “Hail Mary’s” to make up for a sin of commission. But prayer is more primal than that. Everyone, except for an über-systematic professor or two, knows that prayer is interpersonal language. Madonna gets it (see below);2 we might too. Moreover, prayer is language that comes to the heart of believers and unbelievers alike.
Precisely because it is interpersonal language, a prayer may be coercive but it is just as likely to be a genuine cry for help, an expression of heartfelt thanks, or an act of contrition followed by a burst of praise. Prayer draws its power, not so much from the precision of its diction, but from a metanarrative it takes for granted. This is no less true of sacrifice and other rites.
It is profoundly misleading to think of prayer as, first and foremost, a technology. The archetypal prayer is another. One example will have to suffice. There is a prayer in Forrest Gump that casts its shadow across the entire film. Jenny, the woman of Forrest’s life after his mother, is a young girl. Her father is chasing her through the fields to beat her, as was his wont, when she stops and hides. From her place of hiding she prays:
Dear God, make me a bird. So I could fly far, far far away from here.
As the movie describes, God answers Jenny’s prayer in spades. The means of this grace are the desires of her heart. The result is more bitter than sweet. What she hoped her father would give her, but never did, she has a hard time finding elsewhere. Forrest becomes the faraway place to which Jenny flies, but not before she tries everything else, and not before she knows that death awaits her. This is the truth behind all prayer: the knowledge of one’s own “transcendedness” - the opposite of the denial of death.
Like a child you whisper softly to me
You're in control just like a child
Now I'm dancing
It's like a dream, no end and no beginning
You're here with me, it's like a dream
Let the choir sing
1 Ruth Benedict, “Religion,“ in General Anthropology (Franz Boas, gen. ed.; Boston: Heath, 1939) 627-665; 643.
Frederick Webb Hodge, ed., Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico, 2 vols.; Bulletin of the Bureau of American Ethnology [of the Smithsonian Institution] 30; Washington: Government Printing Office, 1907 [v.1] and 1910 [v. 2]