In Memoriam: Sonja Luehrmann

It is with profound sadness that we post this memoriam after Sonja’s recent death. She had that rare combination of a seemingly boundless capacity to generate intellectual ferment, while also building true collegiality. She gave those gifts to us, her colleagues, while we were fortunate enough to know her. We celebrate her life by continuing to think alongside her, as we reread and circulate the work she left behind. To that end, we asked some of her colleagues to remember Sonja and reflect on a few of their favorite pieces of her work. It’s our small tribute to a scholar and friend who will be very sorely missed.

–Hillary Kaell, on behalf of the Anthrocybib curatorial team, with thanks to Candace Lukasik for posting and compiling links

 

The passing of Sonja is a tremendous loss for anthropology and religious studies at large, but will be felt especially acutely on the west coast. Sonja was an inspiring leader in these fields in British Columbia: advising students, providing critical feedback to colleagues, fostering collaborations, and complementing the traditional focus of west coast anthropology beyond the Pacific Northwest. After finishing her PhD at Michigan, she held a Killam post-doctoral fellowship at UBC from 2009 to 2011. She gave a very well received lecture at the University of Victoria in October 2010 titled “The lives of life: Remembering and forgetting in Russian Orthodox anti-abortion activism,” based on post-doctoral research she conducted in the former Soviet Union and parts of which can be found in her 2019 article in the journal Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society. As her fellowship was nearing completion in 2011, she was offered (and accepted) a position in religious studies at Indiana University with a specialization in Orthodox Christianity. For a time, it looked like she would relocate to the Midwest. Fortunately for west coast anthropology, she was ultimately offered a tenure-track position in the Department of Anthropology and Sociology at Simon Fraser and chose to stay in British Columbia to continue her path-breaking research on Soviet and post-Soviet secularism and religion. She was a vibrant and visible presence in British Columbia anthropology and worked to facilitate cross-campus collaboration with scholars at the province’s other universities.  Sonja’s all-too-early passing is a tragedy and she will be remembered with the greatest fondness.

–Daromir Rudnyckyj, University of Victoria, Canada

 

Sonja leaves us with a tremendous gap. She was a rare person, who inspired many of us with her ethnographic erudition, analytical clear sight, and methodological rigor. For me her studies of prayer and icons stood out as particularly compelling for invigorating a conversation of the role of the senses in Orthodox Christianity. Sonja was able to cover the complexity of lived religion and its legacies both in anthropological and historical terms. This legacy, I hope, will spur many to honor her by pushing on, where she all too early was forced to leave.

— Andreas Bandak, University of Copenhagen, Denmark

 

For me, paying tribute to Sonja involves recounting her extraordinary generosity as a colleague-mentor alongside her prolific talent.  By the time I met her in 2003, when I was a prospective Ph.D. student, Sonja was already dispensing jewels of wisdom about graduate school life while preparing to publish her M.A. thesis on the Alutiq villages of Alaska. As I confronted a post-2008 job market at the AAA’s, Sonja covered for my hotel costs while putting the finishing touches on both her CA article on Soviet propaganda and ideological transmission and her inventive historical ethnography on Soviet atheism and post-Soviet religious revival. Finally, thanks to her formidable leadership on our SSRC collaborative grant, I along with six others traveled to Thessaloniki and Cluj to share the best of work and leisure, comparatively and collectively.  At the young age of 44, Sonja had already gifted me with more than most would ever do for another’s career and scholarly formation.  I mourn a profound example of unwavering friendship and intellectual vitality.

–Angie Heo, University of Chicago, USA

 

To celebrate Sonja honestly is to recall that intellectual rigor and personal integrity which demanded of her unvarnished frankness. And we, her erstwhile teachers, could feel her frankness sting like a whip.  But that sting was always in the service of asking more of us, because she asked more of herself.  To teach her was to enter into the most arduous debate. I have been reading through our voluminous email exchanges while she was studying for her prelims in 2004. At one point she pulled me deeply (far more than I was prepared for) into the problem of belief. Worrying that she was getting too anxious about her essays, I remarked that some arguments shed more heat than light. She replied: “What’s wrong with heat? The more I read of the so-called anthro of religion, the more I appreciate what a sign of deep intellectual engagement it was when Luther threw his ink pot at the devil. Compared to all the self-flagellant agonizing over sharing or not sharing the beliefs of one’s subjects – as if that would change anything…What this country needs is not anthropologists working on religion, but a tradition of considering religion as something worthy of intellectual effort at all.”  Here she reveals not just her erudition, seriousness—and ironic humor—but also her fundamental challenge to the academy’s methodological atheism. For she was an unapologetic Lutheran, if not wholly identified with the Orthodox whom she studied, at least their fellow traveler.  When again I urged her not to overwork, she wrote “I go to church Sunday mornings, so not working all day after that would be just too Puritan. One can’t always freely choose the external authorities one imposes upon oneself… Besides, it is also very interesting to discover how close I can get myself to going mad just by reading…Luckily, I’m also learning that a mind is not such an easy thing to get rid of.” And a few weeks later: “But I’ll survive, because I’m signed up to do the scripture readings in church on Sunday. The Lutheran equivalent of pledging to walk to Santiago de Compostela. Good to be a member of a rationalist religion.” Sting and stimulation both, what a voice we have lost.

–Webb Keane, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, USA

 

I met Sonja during a conference at Max Planck Institute for Anthropology in Halle, Germany, in 2005, and since then we became colleagues, collaborators, and friends. She was a great writer, a sharp thinker, and a wonderful fieldworker. She did difficult ethnography among Russian-speaking Orthodox informants with the intellectual courage of a true professional and the deep empathy of a devoted person. Her own style of doing anthropology, a combination of intellectual sharpness and deep personal involvement, shapes many of her longer and shorter texts of which “God values intentions”: Abortion, expiation, and moments of sincerity in Russian Orthodox pilgrimage” is my favorite. She knew her way, and it is so painful for us who lost her that her earthly path was so short.

–Jeanne Kormina, Higher School of Economics University, St. Petersburg, Russia

Sonja’s passing was shocking despite the fact that she made no secret of her illness. She remained as committed to her work during the last couple of years as she had always been, writing, editing, giving talks and generously responding to invitations to review, join PhD committees, etc. This somehow made us hope that life would go on as usual as we continued to count on her dedicated presence, rigorous scholarship and generous intellect. Earlier this year she visited us in Budapest to give a workshop and a talk which raised interest across several departments at CEU. The texts she suggested for the workshop, Was Soviet Society Secular? Undoing Equations between Communism and Religion (2015) and Beyond Life Itself: The Embedded Fetuses of Russian Orthodox Anti-Abortion Activism (2018) complemented each other greatly but also offered a privileged insight into her longstanding interest in religion and secularism and the transition from Soviet to postsocialist Russia. This was Sonja at her best: sharp, thorough and engaging, even if tired and worried about her capacity to concentrate and respond to questions. I first met Sonja in 2005 at a conference in Halle that led to a groundbreaking volume on Eastern Christians in Anthropological Perspective (2010) to which we both contributed. This gave us the chance to start a meaningful conversation that continued and deepened over the years as we changed jobs, engaged in new research, became friends and collaborated on several projects. It reached its fullest during the Sensory spirituality project, a comparative study of prayer in Orthodox Christianity that lasted 3 years  (2012-2014), giving us the chance to think, do research and write together—a rare treat in today’s academia. This was a formative experience for all of us, thanks to Sonja who steered the project with an intellectual maturity and unassuming presence that generated unexpected synergies as our collective volume Praying with the Senses (2017) testifies. This volume, alongside two of Sonja’s celebrated books, Secularism, Soviet Style (2011) and Religion in Secular Archives (2015) have shaped my own thinking about religion, history and secularism and I return to them often as I write about Orthodox Christians in Eastern Europe or South India. Precious memories now mix with glimpses of her creative mind as I come across more of her recent writings that were meant to turn into a book on anti-abortion activism in Russian Orthodoxy (God Values Intentions or Innocence and Demographic Crisis). These hidden gems testify to the breadth of her knowledge, her inquisitiveness and incredible potential that was curtailed too soon. Her life was marked by a quest for knowledge that escaped conventions and profound care for the other—she will be deeply missed for both.

–Vlad Naumescu, Central European University, Budapest, Hungary

 

Sonja occupied a unique position in our disciplinary ecology, with her original work in the history and anthropology of Russian secularism and Orthodoxy. I was lucky to have begun a conversation with her in 2014 on a panel that Sonja organized for the AAA where she invited panellists to engage the work of historian Callum Brown, whose book “Religion and the Demographic Revolution” provocatively brought ideas of gender and sexuality to bear on the secularization hypothesis. We had a certain complicity at a distance since then, which I like to think was partially consolidated by the hilarity of eating our first-ever solo “professional” dinner at “Hot N Juicy Crawfish” where we had to eat our saucy shellfish with plastic gloves and bibs. Of course there were scholarly reasons for the complicity as well, and we were both looking forward to deepening our academic conversation. I was heartbroken to learn about her cancer in January, and I subsequently organized an AAA panel with her in mind, “What Does the Secular Mean for Anthropology? Interdicisplinary Perspectives on a Conceptual Relation.” I had dearly wanted her to be there, hoping that we would have another chance to exchange ideas in person. I had hoped that she would help us to expand on her work on Soviet social scientists, in which she urges us to seek more open ethnographic futures by learning about the histories and biases of secular social science. In November our panel plans to honour her memory and scholarship, which will inspire many of us for years to come.

–Ashley Lebner, Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, Canada

 

Sonja was also a tremendous supporter and contributor to Anthrocybib over the years. She was the inspiration for, and respondent to, our Praying with the Senses review forum in 2017 and she reviewed two books for our project, Negotiating Marian Apparitions (2015) and Blood: A Critique of Christianity (2014). We’ve also posted many of her articles over the years, including her co-authored piece on the nature of prayer in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion in 2018 and her article on the politics of prayer books in the Journal of Religious and Political Practice in 2015.

 

 

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