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Relating through Prayer

Identity Formation in Early Christianity


Maria Louise Munkholt Christensen

This book analyses early Christian texts on prayer. These texts provide a rich perspective on the formation of Christian identity in the early church. The primary sources investigated are the four earliest known treatises on prayer in Christian history, written by Clement, Origen, Tertullian and Cyprian in the beginning of the third century. Prayer and identity have both individual and collective expressions, and theological treatises reveal an interplay between these phenomena. The book examines the relational character of Christian prayer: how prayer establishes a relationship between the individual and God; how other social relations are reinforced by prayer in direct and indirect ways; and how individual Christians are connected to their own self in prayer.

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1 Theory, method and previous scholarship


This chapter presents the identity theories and theories on the formation of self which constitute the frame of the present study. Many of the theoretical assumptions that will be used are drawn from a certain vein of sociological/philosophical studies called “Symbolic Interactionism” or from the French philosopher Michel Foucault. This delimitation is made in order not to be carried away by the huge amount of writings on self and identity, and also because “symbolic interactionism” is especially relevant when the theme is prayer, since prayer is a symbol used in the social world. In order to clarify what is meant by “prayer,” “self,” “identity” and “identity formation” in the present study, the immediately following paragraphs are dedicated to definitions and theories.

1.1 “Prayer” – avoiding a rigid definition

It makes sense to open a study on prayer with a definition of prayer. This is, however, difficult because it is impossible to deduce just one definition of prayer from the source material under investigation. Prayer is a “Sammelgattung,”10 and also among Christian thinkers in the early church, prayer was comprehended in a very broad fashion. Origen’s treatise, Perì Euchês, testifies to such a multifaceted perception of prayer since in this text alone, one finds several ideas of what prayer is: Origen envisions prayer in a concrete and verbal sense in accord with Paul as consisting of “supplication, intercession, pleas and thanksgivings” (1 Tim 2:1);11 furthermore, Origen understands prayer as something purely internal...

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