Martin Riesebrodt, sociologist of religion, 1948-2014

Update: The University memorial service in honor of Martin Riesebrodt will be held on Thursday, March 12, at 4 p.m. in Swift Hall. The service will include tributes from faculty colleagues and former students as well as musical selections. A reception will follow.

As a scholar, Martin Riesebrodt brought a grounded and incisive approach to the sociology of religion. As a mentor, he pushed his graduate students to think deeply and find their own voices. As a colleague, he was always generous with his time and dry, witty insights.

Riesebrodt, professor emeritus of the sociology of religion in the Divinity School and Department of Sociology, died Dec. 6 of cancer in Berlin. He was 66.

“Martin Riesebrodt was a marvelous scholar and human being; his work on comparative fundamentalisms and on definitions of religion and their social mechanisms will stand the test of time for their cogency, sanity and critical bite,” said Margaret M. Mitchell, the Shailer Mathews Professor of New Testament and Early Christian Literature and dean of the Divinity School. “His death is a great loss to us at the University and to the academy.”

Colleagues say Riesebrodt’s work offered an important counterpoint to religious studies scholarship that de-emphasized the value of comparing different traditions. Riesebrodt, by contrast, believed that looking across many religions and the behavior of their practitioners yielded deeper, more meaningful discoveries.

In Pious Passion: The Emergence of Modern Fundamentalism in the United States and Iran (University of California Press, 1993; German original, 1990), which his colleague Bruce Lincoln calls “the best study of fundamentalism that’s ever been produced,” Riesebrodt argued that American Protestant and Iranian Shi’ite fundamentalism were motivated in part by a desire to reassert patriarchal structures of authority.

Riesebrodt took on an even more ambitious project in The Promise of Salvation: A Theory of Religion (University of Chicago Press, 2010; German original, 2007). By looking at why and how religion is practiced—and how religions talk about their own beliefs and the beliefs of other faiths—Riesebrodt sought to define and understand religion as a universal human concept.

Riesebrodt was an internationally recognized expert on the work of the influential German sociologist Max Weber. He was an associate director of the Max Weber Archives and one of the editors of a German critical edition of Weber’s work, Max Weber-Gesamtausgabe. Among his greatest contributions to his field was “the re-assertion of the relevance of the Weberian approach,” explained Andreas Glaeser, professor in sociology.

“He re-introduced a generation of [American] scholars to Max Weber and the importance of the Weberian perspective for an understanding of religion,” agreed Lincoln, the Caroline E. Haskell Distinguished Service Professor in the Divinity School.

A supportive mentor

Riesebrodt’s views and social scientific approach sometimes set him apart from other thinkers in the field of religious studies. Yet colleagues say he exuded a quiet confidence in his own work—a confidence he instilled in the students whom he mentored.

“He left a cadre of really beautifully trained, very intelligent and energetic students who are continuing the kind of work he tutored them in,” said Lincoln. “I don’t think I’ve seen anybody take better care of his advisees than Martin.”

Loren Lybarger, PhD’02, now a senior fellow at the Martin Marty Center, experienced firsthand the gentle care and high expectations Riesebrodt had for his students. He could be tough-minded, but always in a constructive way, Lybarger recalls: “He was very interested in mentoring me so that I could become a rigorous thinker.”

His mentorship extended beyond the academic—Riesebrodt and his wife Brigitte were always willing to open their homes to graduate students, inviting them to social events and reminding them that family life was as important as academic work.

Riesebrodt continued to look out for his students well beyond their time at the University, even contacting colleagues at other institutions on their behalf as they searched for jobs.

After he had finished his graduate work, Lybarger continued to seek Riesebrodt’s feedback on his works in progress. “He would invariably respond very thoughtfully,” says Lybarger, who helped to organize a conference in 2011 at the Divinity School in Riesebrodt’s honor. “I trusted his intellectual support.”

At the same time, Riesebrodt never tried to force his own ideas onto his graduate students. “What I admired most in his mentoring was the latitude he gave his students, his pushing us to find our own voices, to be the best scholars we could, in our own styles,” remembers Geneviève Zubrzycki, PhD’02, who is now an associate professor of sociology at the University of Michigan.

“He insisted that the best way to get a job was not to mold ourselves to the market’s expectations, whatever the fad of the day might be, but to do what we love and do it brilliantly so that others would be convinced of the work’s importance.”

Riesebrodt studied anthropology at the University of Heidelberg and sociology at the University of Munich. He taught in his native Germany until he joined the University of Chicago faculty in 1990. In his retirement, he returned to Europe and taught at the Graduate Institute in Geneva where he held the Yves Oltramare Chair for Religion and Politics.

Riesebrodt is survived by his wife, artist Brigitte Riesebrodt, and their son, Max, both of Berlin. A University memorial service will be planned for the Winter Quarter.