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.

 

 

Olsson, “Jesus for Zanzibar”

Olsson, Hans. 2019. Jesus for Zanzibar: Narratives of Pentecostal (Non-)Belonging, Islam, and Nation. Leiden: Brill. 

Abstract: In Jesus for Zanzibar: Narratives of Pentecostal (Non-)Belonging, Islam, and Nation Hans Olsson offers an ethnographic account of the lived experience and socio-political significance of newly arriving Pentecostal Christians in the Muslim majority setting of Zanzibar. This work analyzes how a disputed political partnership between Zanzibar and Mainland Tanzania intersects with the construction of religious identities. Undertaken at a time of political tensions, the case study of Zanzibar’s largest Pentecostal church, the City Christian Center, outlines religious belonging as relationally filtered in-between experiences of social insecurity, altered minority / majority positions, and spiritual powers. Hans Olsson shows that Pentecostal Christianity, as a signifier of (un)wanted social change, exemplifies contested processes of becoming in Zanzibar that capitalizes on, and creates meaning out of, religious difference and ambient political tensions.

Bakker Kellogg, “Perforating Kinship”

Bakker Kellogg, Sarah. 2019. “Perforating Kinship: Syriac Christianity, Ethnicity, and Secular Legibility.” Current Anthropology. https://doi.org/10.1086/705233.

Abstract: This article examines the rhetorical invocation of “secular ethnicity” among diasporic Syriac Orthodox Christian activists living in the Netherlands as they seek political recognition as an endangered, indigenous ethnoreligious group of the Middle East from the UN Human Rights Council, the Dutch state, and their local municipal government. In tracing how their efforts to stake a politically salient ethnic identity on the holy rites and rituals of the Syriac liturgical tradition are legible to some audiences while remaining illegible to others, I analyze how secularity intertwines with theologically informed ritual practices in geographically variable ways to shape how Syriac Christian kinship is reproduced in diaspora. I analyze these intertwined forms of legibility and illegibility through the notion of perforation, which I offer as an alternative to the one-dimensional metaphor of secular rupture, in order to show how diasporic Syriac Orthodox kinship is premised on the conviction that Christianity is an inherent, rather than an optional, dimension of human personhood. Ultimately, I argue that secular power and its effects are subsumed within other historical processes of division and reconciliation in a broader contest over the proper dispensation of political and ritual power throughout the history of Christianity.

McIvor, “Rights and Relationships: Rhetorics of Religious Freedom among English Evangelicals”

McIvor, Méadhbh. 2019. “Rights and Relationships: Rhetorics of Religious Freedom among English Evangelicals.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion, lfz029. 

Abstract: This paper uses evangelical reflections on the meaning of “rights” to explore the juridification of religion in contemporary England. Drawing on sixteen months of participatory fieldwork with evangelicals in London, I argue that English evangelicals’ critiques of Christian-interest litigation reflect the interaction of local theologies with developments in the law’s regulation of religion, developments that have contributed to the relativization of Protestant Christianity even as historic church establishment is maintained. Through an exploration of the tension between the goals of (rights-based) individualism and (Christian) relationalism as they concern the law, I show how litigation can affect religious subjectivity even in the absence of a personal experience with the pageantry of the court.

Orenella, “Jesus Saves’ and ‘Clothed in Christ’: athletic religious apparel in the Christian CrossFit community”

Ornella, A. D. (2019). “Jesus Saves” and “Clothed in Christ”: athletic religious apparel in the Christian CrossFit community. Sport in Society, 22(2), 266-280.

Abstract: The popular sport of CrossFit has attracted a number of Christians who simultaneously celebrate their passion for their faith and their passion for their sport. In this interplay of sport and religion, fashion becomes an important means for the profession of faith. This essay focuses specifically on religious athletic T-shirts that appear regularly among Christians in CrossFit. I argue that these are not a mere profession of faith but serve a dual purpose: on the one hand being athletic (and one could argue secular) and on the other being religious symbols with a deeper theological meaning. As such, they are sites where business opportunities, religious and sacramental practices, advertisement and consumption practices collide. I argue that religious CrossFit T-shirts need to be taken seriously as a religious-sacramental practice, but also that religious athletic clothing makes faith fit for consumption.

McAllister and Napolitano, “The Powers of Powerlessness”

McAllister, Carlota and Valentina Napolitano. 2019. “The Powers of Powerlessness.” Political Theology Network.  

Abstract: This is the Prize winner Essay for the Inaugural Political Theology Network on New Directions in Political Theology. In this essay we invite those of us who work in political theology to listen to the Americas and to do so, insofar as possible, ethnographically.

Whitmarsh, “Protestant Techniques of Care”

Whitmarsh, Ian. 2019. “Protestant Techniques of Care: The Hindu, the Pentecost, and the ‘Secular.'” Medical Anthropology Quarterly. 

Abstract: Modern techniques of caring for the self through staying healthy rely on an ethic of choice, often evoking critiques of the (neo)liberal subject. This sense of choice has carried frequently overlooked Protestant commitments from Luther to Kant and Locke to 19th‐century American health reformers, premised on a refusal of ritual, mysticism, and the priest as the source of truth. This article explores how these implicit commitments shape the relation to other religious traditions in countries like Trinidad. Campaigns against chronic disease in Trinidad carried out in public health venues and churches echo multinational health projects in pronouncing, “We all want a healthy life.” The article draws on a Caribbean ironic sense of secularity to analyze the way that the threat to this “want” found in other religious traditions such as Pentecostal healing and Hindu ecstatic practices reveals Protestant commitments masked within a modern global “secular” care of the self.

Brahinsky, “The effects of scale”

Brahinsky, Josh. 2018. “The effects of scale: How Western agency-anxieties mold affect theory, and how Pentecostalism and neuroscience teach us to think differently.” Anthropological Theory. 18(4).

This paper offers a critique of affect theory using the analytical concept of scale that is made concrete through an ethnography of Pentecostal Christianity and an exploration of current neuroscientific thinking. Affect theory is one recent form of a Western philosophical concern about the loss of agency in modernity, what I call “agency-anxiety.” Affect theorists tend to privilege the sense of freedom gained by immediate and individual experience over the constraints of more extended experiences and collectivity. That is, affect theory often scales its analysis tightly. This paper responds with an ethnography of Pentecostal practice and exploration of work in neuroscience that describes an analytic space in which broader scales can be useful as well. Ethnography scaled beyond the instant reveals that the Pentecostal ideal of surrendering to God in a moment of abandonment often results from a “fake it until you make it” approach; in other words, from extended, effortful, willful practice. This practice leads to the formation of habits and dispositions that allow the attainment of spontaneous rupture. Likewise, neuroscience can scale out its analysis by focusing on dispositions, moods and habits, rather than simply a more immediate view. Further, “scale effects” and emergent properties in scale-to-scale relations undermine reductionism. Finally, because Pentecostals are generally right wing yet also exemplify ruptural practice, it seems that outside of a particular conjuncture, the tightly scaled eruptive moment of affect is by no means per se a productive or (politically) progressive formation. As such, making scale an explicit analytical category might help us to see agency, change, and structure more clearly.

Praying with the Senses: Review Forum Response (Sonja Luehrmann)

Luehrmann, Sonja, ed. 2018. Praying with the Senses: Contemporary Orthodox Christian Spirituality in Practice. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press. 

By: Sonja Luehrmann (Simon Fraser University)

Politics and Aesthetics in Orthodox Prayers: A Response to the Review Forum

This is an extraordinarily thoughtful set of responses, and I feel grateful and humbled to read them. As Helena Kupari notes, Praying with the Senses is more than a compilation of essays, but the outcome of a research collaboration in which all contributors enriched each other’s understanding of the poetics and politics of Orthodox Christian prayer. The reviewers acknowledge the coherence and synergy of the volume, and hopefully this will be palpable for other readers as well.

I cannot answer all the rich remarks of the reviewers in this forum, but would like to pick up on some shared threads, one of which is a call for more explicit discussion of politics. Valentina Napolitano asks about “the wider role of the state and post-national formations that make religious spaces new important local and transnational modes of political aggregation.” Earlier in her post, she already notes that Orthodox prayer practices transcend the unhelpful distinction between private inner experience and public ritual practice. Simon Coleman asks about “forms of Orthodox mobility” such as migration, diaspora-formation, and mutual influences among national orthodoxies. These are questions about the political existence of prayer events and their grounding in national, denominational, or ethnic imagined communities.

In answer to this challenge to address the political dimensions of prayer, I am reminded that in the Orthodox church, community is constituted liturgically and collectively. Countering Western images of Orthodox churches as closely welded to particular monarchical or nation state formations (the infamous “caesaropapism”), Orthodox Christians often claim to keep politics out of religion by avoiding the unified transnational hierarchy of the Catholic Church in favor of the communion of equal patriarchs. As the recent severance of relations between the Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate and the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Constantinople shows, these relationships are fraught with inequalities and competing interests; in other words, they are political in a secular sense.

However, for ordinary believers and clergy the split manifests in restricted possibilities of participation in worship, bringing into play a slightly different understanding of politics. When lay members of either side can no longer receive the eucharist in churches affiliated with the other, and priests can no longer celebrate liturgy together, what is at stake are not just relations among contemporary hierarchs, but a given Orthodox believer’s relationship to the church as a transtemporal community that spans past, present, and future generations. The immediate cause of the rupture is disagreement over the appropriate national church on Ukrainian territory: the Kiev Patriarchate (now recognized by Constantinople against the wishes of Moscow) or the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate. In this dispute, one of the major markers of distinction and points of contention is who gets commemorated in the solemn intercessions during divine liturgy – Patriarch Kirill of Moscow or Patriarch Filaret of Kiev. In the absence of a unified transnational hierarchy, liturgical prayer is a major marker of allegiance that some lay participants listen for attentively, while others ignore it as they pursue health or blessing across the “Orthodox continuum” (Naumescu 2007).

Drawing on Sarah Bakker Kellogg’s (2015) wonderful work on liturgical community among the Syriac Christian diaspora in the Netherlands, one can say that this reliance on prayer and liturgy gives Orthodox communities a degree of independence from particular ethnic and state formations, and enables them to reproduce community in mobile forms. It also allows for different understandings of politics to intersect – one that is concerned with patronage and allegiance in quite worldly ways, and another one that is closer to what Nicholas Heron (2018) calls “liturgical power.” Liturgical power is vested in the figure of the minister as an instrument animated from elsewhere, and in prayer practices that reach beyond immediate location to saints who lived long ago but are still present, and places that are elsewhere but metonymically accessible through church namings and iconography (Heo 2018). If there is a politics of Orthodox prayer, it pushes against the dominant image of modern Orthodox churches as nation-bound, even as it is often implicated in Orthodox nationalisms.

Sarah Bakker Kellogg’s response calls attention to another dimension of politics in Orthodox worlds: the split between the so-called “Oriental” or non-Chalcedonian churches and those that derive from the state church of the Byzantine empire. Kellogg is justified in her critique of our volume as being mainly concerned with churches of Byzantine derivation; with the exception of Heo’s chapter on Egypt, Boylston’s on Ethiopia, and Bandak’s extended vignette on Syria, the Oriental churches get relatively short treatment. However, in reading Kellogg’s retelling of the “legacy of Orthodox Christianity’s historical relationship with empire, which has functioned to obscure other kinds of Orthodox worlds contained within it,” I am struck by how similar her articulation of the non-Chalcedonian position is to how Orthodox Christians in Russia and Eastern Europe articulate their predicament vis-à-vis Western Christendom: they, too, feel that dominant narratives of church history erase and orientalise them in relation to a West that is “heir to the imperial position,” in this case that of Rome.

Susan Gal’s (2002) concept of fractal distinction seems applicable here. A division among dominant and alternative strands of Christianity reproduces itself at various historical and geographical intersections, between “Hellenic” and “Semitic” Christians, “Rome” and “Byzantium,” logocentric Protestants and ritualistic Catholics/Orthodox, etc. At each juncture, one side is made to represent the forward movement of history while the other is relegated to a static past, to be recovered by sympathetic scholars (Hann 2012).

This is not to deny the important warning against an unthinking adoption of imperial histories. As Lars Hedegard Williams puts it, a focus on prayer as “aesthetic formation, discursive tradition, and skill” allows us to keep history and politics in view as we look at sensory practice in its personal and communal dimensions. Hopefully this framework will also prove useful in contexts that the volume leaves insufficiently illuminated.

References:
Gal, Susan. 2002. A Semiotics of the Public/Private Distinction. differences 13(1): 77-95.

Hann, Chris. 2012. Personhood, Christianity, Modernity. Anthropology of this Century 3, http://aotcpress.com/articles/personhood-christianity-modernity/

Heo, Angie. 2018. The Political Lives of Saints: Christian-Muslim Mediations in Egypt. Berkeley/L.A.: University of California Press.

Heron, Nicholas. 2018. Liturgical Power: Between Economic and Political Theology. New York: Fordham University Press.

Kellogg, Sarah Bakker. 2015. Ritual sounds, political echoes: Vocal agency and the sensory cultures of secularism in the Dutch Syriac diaspora. American Ethnologist 42(3): 431-445.

Naumescu, Vlad. 2007. Modes of Religiosity in Eastern Christianity: Religious Processes and Social Change in Ukraine. Berlin: Lit.

 

Praying with the Senses: Review Forum (Sarah Bakker Kellogg)

Luehrmann, Sonja, ed. 2018. Praying with the Senses: Contemporary Orthodox Christian Spirituality in Practice. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press. 

By: Sarah Bakker Kellogg (University of California, Berkeley)

Worlds within Worlds: On Imperial Christianity’s Illegible Internal Others

The over-arching question running through Sonja Luerhmann’s marvelous edited volume on Orthodox Christian prayer is how sensory practices and bodily disciplines work together to create a world. Rightly identifying a shared emphasis on the corporeal dimensions of corporate worship across capital-O Orthodoxy, the contributors to this volume offer a number of valuable insights into questions of personhood, mediation, tradition, authority, publicity, intimacy, belonging, and the theological valences we attach to the human sensorium. Their collective labor demonstrates that Eastern Christianity is rich soil for anthropological inquiry from a number of vantage-points and for a host of theoretical interests. It is only further evidence of this richness that despite the book’s nuanced take on Orthodoxy’s historical and geographical complexity, a number of questions remain. In this brief essay, I take up just one of these remaining questions in order to reflect on the extent to which this volume’s claims about the senses, prayer, and the worldliness of an Orthodox world resonate with my own ethnographic work on an especially marginal branch of the Orthodox Christian tradition: the Syriac Orthodox diaspora in Western Europe. One of the key claims this book makes, and its authors offer a great deal of compelling evidence to support it, is that Orthodox Christianity is a world, as common stylistic features, ethical questions, and theological preoccupations reappear again and again, from Russia to Ethiopia to India and beyond. The question I am concerned with is how much this depiction of the worldliness of the Orthodox world relies on the legacy of Orthodox Christianity’s historical relationship with empire, which has functioned to obscure other kinds of Orthodox worlds contained within it.

It will take some work to make this case, given how persuasively the contributors to this volume describe and analyze this Orthodox worldliness. When understood as a globalized aesthetic formation, following Birgit Meyer’s apt phrase, Orthodox Christianity makes Christian persons through diverse kinds of relationships among practitioners spanning multiple scales and modes of mediation. These relationships, in turn, are fashioned through ongoing processes of sensory exchange and the ethically attuned cultivation of individual capacities that enable such exchanges. Naumescu names this Orthodox mode of being and becoming “relational ethics,” and this approach mirrors my own observations of diasporic Syriac Orthodox liturgical practice, which is the site par excellence for enacting a deeply felt ethics and theology of Syriac kinship, moral personhood, and ethnic belonging. The ethical, the theological, and the ethnic are so tightly bound that the sung prayers and hymns of the West Syriac Rite serve as a parish level ethnic boundary of a sort that is entirely illegible to conventional secular social science understandings of the distinction between “ethnic” and “religious” identity (Bakker Kellogg 2015; see also Atto 2011; Calder 2016; Jarjour 2018).

In sensory practices like icon veneration, sacramental listening, repetitive recitation, pilgrimage, and learning to read ancient sacral languages, Orthodoxy’s aesthetic forms and relational ethics articulate with what the authors understand to be an authoritative discursive tradition in the sense that Talal Asad means it, in that it aspires to a kind of coherence as an ethico-theological corpus rooted in a genealogy of ecclesiastical authority. Among Syriac Orthodox Christians who have resettled in Western Europe, this dynamic takes shape in the weekly recitation of the litany of saints, from St. Ephrem of Nisibis to St. Jacob of Serug to Philoxenos of Marburg, who are not only moral exemplars for Orthodox becoming (Bandak and Boylston 2014), but also beloved ancestors, who as members of the family remain intimately and immanently involved in everyday life. For the broader Orthodox world described in this volume, the historical imagination that shapes both the aesthetic and the discursive dimensions of this ethico-theological corpus is a political imagination as well, in that it is anchored in intellectual, poetic, visual, and sonic evocations of ancient Byzantium, and this is where the authors’ views of what makes Orthodoxy Orthodox diverge from mine.

It is, to my mind, a very healthy thing when anthropologists attend critically to the imaginative and reconstructive processes through which contemporary Christians establish claims of continuity with the past, and yet it also strikes me that something crucial is lost when we do not worry as much as we might about how the present’s relationship with the past is sometimes more than just an act of imagination and commemoration. Sometimes, certain narratives of the past, originating in the past, maintain their purchase in the present because of their decisive world-making effects. In the case of Orthodoxy’s roots in 4th and 5th century Christological controversy, I do not contest the point that much of the Orthodox world aspires to a principle of unity-in-diversity made largely possible by a shared imagined connection to Byzantium. This shared imagined connection is, as often as not, a geotheopolitical construct meant to fill the space left behind by any number of failed secular and even “western” (does that mean Roman?) ventures. It is also true that this ostensibly unifying thread, which both spans the Orthodox world and defines it as Orthodox, is not to be found in the Syriac Orthodox corner of it in which I work.

Despite public lip service to ecumenical reconciliation, I know of no Syriac Orthodox person with a strong aesthetic, moral, or theological attachment to a Byzantine past. What I can attest to are many Syriac Orthodox Christians who, if they know you well enough to trust you with this revelation, will privately express anger about how their liturgical forebears were mistreated at the Council of Chalcedon (451 C.E.) by the imperial bishops of Byzantium and Rome. From their perspective, which is filtered through their own lived memories of religious suppression and political violence in south east Turkey, eastern Syria, and northern Iraq, the misdeeds of the imperial Greek-speaking bishops of the Byzantine Empire at the Council of Chalcedon constituted the founding moment of Syriac Christianity’s historical troubles as a perennially marginalized, subjugated, and persecuted minority. From this moment on, a vast, cosmopolitan, and continent-spanning Syriac world took shape, encompassing both “orthodox” West Syriac Christians and “heterodox” East Syriac Christians. This world was not set apart from the Greek-speaking Christianity of formerly Byzantine lands but overlapped it, and engaged it in agonistic dialogue. For centuries, this Syriac world stretched beyond Greek-speaking Christian hegemony through the expansion of the Islamic world.

This history makes a difference to how anthropologists construe the historical context of the twenty first century Orthodox world because this context has shaped that historical imagination in variable ways. How the Roman and Greek churches remember and commemorate the ecumenical councils of the fourth and fifth centuries, and thus how they remember their own Byzantine pasts, is very different from what the heirs of the early Syriac speaking Christians remember and commemorate, as these memories have been shaped and reshaped by their shifting position as subjects of other empires, whether Sassanid, Abbasid, Mughal, or Ottoman. It matters that the Syriac Orthodox I work with consider themselves Orthodox because they adhere to the Nicene Creed. It also matters that they consider themselves non-Chalcedonian and not in the slightest bit Byzantine, not because they disagree with the substance of the Chalcedonian definition of Christ’s incarnate nature, but because they object to how the Bishops of Rome and Constantinople used the Council’s proceedings to establish their own political dominance and cultural hegemony in ways that had long-term material effects on the Syriac speaking world.

Thus it strikes me that when an anthropologist studying the heirs of the imperial position today characterizes the proceedings of the Council of Chalcedon in terms of the Christological divisions among so-called Nestorians, Miaphysites, and Chalcedonians, the impression given is somewhat slanted towards an imperial Christian understanding of what those early Christological debates were all about (Luerhmann 2018:4-7). Take the term miaphysite, for example, which is the label ascribed by Euro-American scholars to non-Chalcedonian churches like the Syriac Orthodox and Coptic Orthodox Churches, who, in response, have also taken up the term. Yet the term does not convey a coherent position taken at the Council of Chalcedon—it was invented as a neologism by English-speaking scholars in the twentieth century by conjoining the Greek word mia- (the feminine term for “one,”) and the Greek word physis (“nature”) (Millar 2013:52; see also Amar 2011). The purpose of this neologism was to emphasize what these western scholars understood to be the non-Chalcedonian Christians’ “weak” one-nature Christological doctrine without explicitly naming it as heterodox. The weakness of their “one” was signaled through use of the grammatical feminine, even though, according to Church historian Fergus Millar, no such term is to be found any relevant ancient texts (2013:50-58). This point ought to raise an anthropological eye-brow or two. As we seek to construe the relevant context to account for “Eastern” Christianity’s constitutive difference from “Western” Christianity we do well to situate even the most neutral seeming of scholarly claims about the past within the very traditions of imperial Christian heresiology, ethnography, and historiography out of which our own modern practices of textual inscription have emerged (Berzon 2016).

An altogether different perspective on what was at stake in those earlier councils comes into view through the Syriac literary tradition of the second through seventh centuries, as shifts in Syriac rhetorical conventions and theological motifs reveal Greek Christianity’s growing encroachment into Syriac modes of theological discourse, which Syriac Studies scholars have recently discerned to be a sign of the incommensurability of Greek, Latin, and Syriac as languages of theological discourse and Christological description. Part of the purpose of these councils was not only to put a limit on what could be said about the person and nature of God but on how it could be said, as in the case of the First Council of Constantinople in 381 C.E., which prohibited using feminine language to characterize any aspect of the Holy Trinity, effectively putting an end to the genre of Syriac poetic theology in which the Holy Spirit, the grammatically feminine ruho, was conventionally described as the Mother, and both God the Father and God the Son were frequently attributed with feminine anatomical attributes and capacities (Amar 2011:17). Such imperial maneuvers not only quashed an entire genre of theological discourse, but they set about to render the Syriac theological imagination illegible within Greek and Roman Christianity, while for Syriac Christians, in turn, Byzantium became synonymous with the imperial West (see also Weltecke 2016; Wood 2013)

The point of this excursion into late antique and early medieval geotheopolitics is not to fault the authors of this volume for insufficiently emphasizing the diversity within Orthodox unity. This historical material is not well known and its salience to anthropological concerns is not immediately obvious, and so I would not expect someone who works on twenty first century Romania or Russia to know what was going on in 13th century Baghdad. The point, rather, is to show how the aesthetic and discursive dimensions of a world emerge in generative tension with the other worlds it overlaps—although it might also be worth a methodological pause to consider the techniques we use to construe particular narratives of the past as necessary “context” to our anthropological analyses of the present, lest we recapitulate past imperial Christian narratives in which other Orthodox worlds are rendered illegible (Bakker Kellogg forthcoming).

For the Syriac Orthodox Christians I work with in the European diaspora, there is not one competing spatiotemporal imaginary at work in their religious and political lives but three, and not one of them is Byzantine. Instead, Syriac Orthodox Christians who think ethnically identify with either the ancient Assyrian Empire or with the ancient city-states of Aram, while those for whom the concept of “ethnicity” is meaningless identify simply with their parishes, ancestral villages, and monasteries. These historical imaginations are shaped, in variable and complex ways, by a sense of Syriac Christianity’s status as simultaneously indigenous, Semitic, and diasporic from the outset. These spatiotemporal imaginaries inform Syriac Orthodox prayer in that they are connected to what I have come to think of as distinct sensory cultures within the broader Syriac Christian world, which in turn reflect that world’s complex diasporic existence and its interactions with other worlds, whether global secularity materializing in local secular nationalisms, Turkish urban culture, Arab music worlds, rural Kurdish village life, or transnational ecumenical activism. If the worldliness of a world is marked by the convergence of aesthetic formation, discursive tradition, transnational connection, and historical imagination, then Syriac Christianity is a world straddling numerous others. This is possible because of the anchoring effects of Syriac prayer, an essential element of the liturgical performance of Syriac liturgy. Liturgical prayer, in this tradition, is an open interpretive space in which competing spatiotemporal configurations of Christian kinship, community, and ethnic belonging, originating in different regions of the Middle East and brought together in diaspora, jostle uncomfortably against one another. This is a world within others’ worlds, both fractured and knit together through intersecting sensory cultures, and its illegibility is produced, in my view, by the dominant knowledge practices and historical narratives shared by secular states and the devout heirs of imperial Christianity alike.

Admittedly, the question of Orthodoxy’s others is brought up in William A. Christian, Jr.’s epilogue, but it is not explicitly thematized as a constitutive, defining feature of the kind of Orthodox world that is represented conceptually and ethnographically in this volume. In some sense, this is good news: there is a great deal left to explore at the interface among worlds, and the multiscalar problem of finding worlds within worlds, in order to illuminate Orthodoxy’s imperial historical imagination. This imagination can at times obscure these other worlds, but this is no mere criticism for the sake of being critical; rather, in thinking about the imperial legacies of Orthodox thought and practice, we can expand our sense of what is at stake both theologically and politically in the aesthetic and discursive practices entailed in Orthodox prayer, which would in turn expand our understanding of how Orthodox prayer might in fact be shaping worlds beyond Orthodoxy itself.

References

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Atto, Naures. 2011. “Hostages in the Homeland, Orphans in the Diaspora: Identity Discourses Among the Assyrian/Syriac Elites in the European Diaspora.” Leiden: Leiden University Press Dissertations.

Bakker Kellogg, Sarah. 2015. “Ritual Sounds, Political Echoes: Vocal Agency and the Sensory
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Bakker Kellogg, Sarah. Forthcoming. “Perforating Kinship: Syriac Christianity, Ethnicity, Secular Legibility.” Current Anthropology.

Bandak, Andreas, and Tom Boylston. 2014. “The ‘Orthodoxy’ of Orthodoxy On Moral Imperfection, Correctness, and Deferral in Religious Worlds.” Religion and Society 5(1): 25–46.

Berzon, Todd S. Classifying Christians: Ethnography, Heresiology, and the Limits of Knowledge in Late Antiquity. Oakland, CA: University of California Press.

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Weltecke, Dorothea. 2016. “Bar ‘Ebroyo and Identity: Remarks on His Historical Writing.” Hugoye: Journal of Syriac Studies 19(2): 303–332.

Wood, Philip. 2013. The Chronicle of Seert: Christian Historical Imagination in Late Antique Iraq. Oxford University Press.