The Question of Orthodox Experience in Serbia

by Aleksandra Stevanovic
Department for History and Philosophy of Science and Technology
SOW researcher

The paper considers science–religion relationship in the context of three distinct events in the modern history of Serbia. Thereby, focal cases include Dictionary of Technology – a script dating from 1981, Žarko Vidović, prominent Christian author of mayor works published around 90s, and the case of school reform attempt by former minister of Education and Sports Ljiljana Čolić in 2004. The reason for the choice is multifold; the three issues cover the period of three successive decades, they raise the question of religion in the world of modernist frame, challenging the thought that science and technology are the only reliable drivers of social dynamics. All three cases met negative political response: Žarko Vidović was silenced, and other two were severely publicly criticized.

Orthodox Presence after 1980s
The last few decades in Serbia have been marked with profound hiatus between science and religion, along with a sense of oblivion regarding medieval legacy and culture. Such science-religion discontinuity and the position of the Church and Orthodoxy that has been challenged might be traced in two possible reasons: the previous rule of the soft communist ideology overshadowing the role of the Church in public life and the rapid development of technology which authorizes itself as omnipotent driver of modernity in all spheres of life, imposing rapid oblivion and endless progress. Communist rule has ended. However, there are implications that the challenge has not ceased with today’s neoliberal setting. Not only is the Church perceived as separated from secular life, but in the neoliberal state, it is often implied that it is inferior to scientific progress which has been further reinforced by a sense of oblivion regarding medieval legacy.
In the time of lost ideals and continuing trend of oblivion, the three events bring a very important aspect of identity – Orthodox one. In that sense, Dictionary represents the revival of Orthodox medieval legacy, Žarko Vidović marks his lifetime as a very notable thinker and intellectual in whose lifetime work Orthodoxy is key point, and Ljiljana Čolić exemplifies an attempt to introduce religion in secular life. Thereby, the idea of the paper is to open the question of Orthodox thoughts presence in the time after 80s and draw parallels among them. The purpose is to use the examples to imply that modernization that has been in the apex of social dynamics incorporates atheism as its basic element, so that there is implicit or explicit deprecation of any trial of Orthodoxy revitalization. What is evident is not only the lack of dialogue, but the open dissent that sometimes get political character. As the period of three decades brings no mayor change in recognizing Orthodoxy presence, the aim is to to reevaluate the readiness for dialogue by presenting three distinct cases regarding the matter, and reconsider present relationship between scientific and religious world views.

Dictionary of Technology and Medieval Legacy
Dictionary of Technology is a separate issue (1–2) of the journal Vidici (Horizons) from 1981. At first glance, it is a special literary-theoretical-artistic dictionary-like production. Written on twenty-eight pages in non-utilitarian, excessive format, it contains 162 entries each providing etymology, meaning, interpretation, synonym for the given word, as well as the illustration from the opus of benchmark authors from the field of literature, sociology, philosophy, theology, or science. The entries are circularly linked through synonyms so as to unmask illusions of Faustian pact in diverse social spheres – theological, political, aesthetic, and technological. It uses the technique of Orthodox creativity, refers to Christian thinkers, but reconsiders social and technological dynamics, rapid modernization in the name of originality, the trend of oblivion, heterogeneity and fragmentation in all spheres of life. It evokes Orthodox experience and critically explores faith–institution relation as well. In that endeavor, Dictionary finds impetus in the creative power of the hand which on a large two-color format calligraphically writes, in Cyrillic, Greek and Latin alphabets, its revelation in the form of the Serbian medieval manuscript.
Creation е. Pan-Slav. твòрити – do. m. act. i. Creation is what precedes technology and what it is abolished in. Technology only seemingly creates: it creates illusion: it forms, duplicates the world. Technology is the analysis of creation. Creation is unrepeatable and indestructible. Only will can create the world as the unity which contains life and selfhood. s. will, touch, life. e. “But creation is the production of things in their utter substantiality.” (T. Aquinnas, Summa).
е. etymology m. meaning i. interpretation s. synonym e. example

Dictionary of Technology
Had it not been handwritten, Dictionary would not be consistent in its ideas; had the hand not written down the ideas of Dictionary, its creation would remain within the limits of artistic decoration. It is one of the first critical words against the id(e)ology of technology which has been overpowering global order as well as Serbian and Yugoslavian setting. Dictionary is not the first critique of technology in the world, but it is the first written by unconfined hand and in the concise form of a dictionary. The text that does not rely on technology but on the monastic devotion and free creation of a human hand, long ago humiliated and disempowered by Bacon with his assertion that “human hand without tool and understanding left to itself have little strength” (see Mumford 1986, 112).
Dictionary of Technology appeared at the critical times in Belgrade when one political structure was getting ready to overtake the power. The idea of any political coterie was modernization and thus neglect of the Serbian medieval culture and Orthodox tradition as unimportant for the contemporary socio-political aspirations. Unsigned, with the complex composition and autonomous visual expression, Dictionary appeared as a big surprise. It provoked a sharp media reaction, plethora of articles in the daily press, and then, in the last act, it was subjected to expulsion into oblivion so that the modernization may continue its way. The script has remained almost unknown in public and academic circles for more than three decades before it started to attract attention as a valuable script for reconsideration of the ethics of technology, modern crisis root, as well as for the critical reading of the historical circumstances of the time.

Zarko Vidovic and Orthodox Identity
Zarko Vidovic is one of the most prominent Christian thinkers in Serbia, one of the few philosophers cherishing Christian worldview. Together with Amfilohije Radovic and Atanasije Jevtic, who were hieromonks then, he participated in the first discussions with Marxists at the beginning of the eighties in Belgrade, in the time of the collapse of Tito’s regime, fostering the spiritual renewal overshadowed by the communist ideology. Vidovic has not considered Serbian Orthodox Church as separated from the state; rather, Serbian state has emerged from Orthodoxy which has always been the driver of education, science, politics and ethics. He presented the struggle of the Church in Serbia in the 90s, marked with the rising of the new regime and especially the consequences of such historical conditions in his papers and lectures and in the interview for the film “Without City and the Law” which was conceived as a project tracking the time of 1999 – war time in Serbia – turbulences and exodus of Serbian people from Kosovo province, representing a true hardship of Serbian Orthodox Church to perform its mission of unifying people in the era of political manipulation. At that time, Milosevic’s communist party (SPS – The Socialist Party of Serbia) was in power and the relationship of state with the Church was declining.
Zarko Vidovic has profoundly influenced the whole generation of Orthodox thinkers that has followed him in perception of philosophy and history of Serbian nation which can be summed in two words: Serbian testament. He perceived testament, oath as the pre-modern Serbian identity which sprang out of the Church. In the times of lost ideals when all the values were shaken to roots, the work of Zarko Vidovic reveals the true Serbian identity – first religious and then national. However, despite being one of the greatest intellectuals of the time, he remained outside the mainstream of Serbian culture. As an Orthodox philosopher he implied that the biggest secret in Christianity is Selfhood, which is not shaped by outside conditions, but consistent in decisions, acts and sacrifice. Vidovic suggested that there are signs of religion weakening, and we should approach genuine religiousness, that is Liturgical dialogue, for it is the only way of Christian self-realization.

Darwin in the Education Practice
Presumably, one of the most problematic questions regarding science-religion relevance is with reference to the theory of evolution. What is evident is not only the lack of dialogue, but the open schism that is prone to become a political issue. In that domain, the case of school reform attempt by former Minister of Education and Sports Ljiljana Čolić in 2004 is the most illustrative case. The Minister decided not to sign the allowance for the mandatory teaching curriculum for Biology, involving the part of Darwinist theory of evolution. This decision profoundly challenged the education stance and mainsteam social paradigm. The goal was to mollify the social influence of the Darwinist theory and make space for alternative views, in this case the creationist one. When proposed, it was a political surprise since prevalent social and scientific setting is oriented towards modernization regarding history as endless progress. The event was somewhat seen as Orthodox Church interfering in politics. It provoked many scholars, evolutionary biologists and a multitude of organizations to react and express their negative opinion on the Minister’s attempt to moderate the influence of the Darwinist theory and provide space for the creationist one as well.
Minister Colic stressed the existence of two theories: theory of evolution and theory of creation. Colic was worried about the fact that one theory, theory of evolution, was more common and prominent that the latter one contributing to learning disbalance and one-sided perspective. In that sense, the Minister’s plan was to temporarily omit the Darwinist theory from mandatory curriculum until the National Education Counsel could find solution.
In her 2005 book Path – the Narrative of a Failed Minister narrating these events, Colic emphasizes that the question of Religious Education introduction is more important in Serbia than anywhere else. Such a statement is rooted in the fact that Serbian Orthodox Church has been tradition and nationality protector apart from being an institution of religion, in the time of Turkish occupation, as well as onward. For centuries, Serbia has lost territory, safety, freedom and so on; however, it has succeeded in preserving Orthodoxy. Therefore, the author stresses the importance of the role of the Orthodox Church in education and that such tradition should not be abandoned.
This event might serve as a solid proof that one of the main challenges of the Orthodoxy in modern scientific rationality is in fact political relevance of the theory of evolution. Hence, particular accent should be put on initiating the dialogue between science and religion in this sphere so as to identify whether the previous communist regime has somewhat fostered atheistic sensibility or it presents a matter of genuine political repeating of scientific paradigm.
The minister’s resignation in 2004 seemed to have marked the end of the controversy. However, after more than a decade, the issue has sprung out again. At the beginning of May 2017, a vehement discussion on the theory of evolution flooded academic circles and media in Serbia. The petition with approximately 160 signs of almost exclusively high intellectuals seeking revision of the theory of evolution study in schools was signed and sent to the Ministry of Education, Science and Technological Development, Serbian Academy of Science and Arts, Committee of Education, Science and Technological Development and to the Senates of the University of Belgrade, University of Kragujevac, and University of Niš. The petition was initiated by Dr. Radmilo Rončević, a retired specialist in plastic and reconstructive surgery, who submitted the explanation for the reasons of revision of the theory of evolution as well. According to the reports, the initiative was supported and signed by 52 academicians, science advisers and university professors, 61 PhDs, 5 magistrates, 50 medical specialists, 24 engineers, 19 high school teachers, 14 philosophers, sociologists and philologists, 25 lawyers and economists, 5 pharmacists and chemists, 8 artists, 5 journalists and 5 priests. Signatories of the petitions advocate that evolution has had no answers on the origin on man, therefore, it cannot be studied as the only theory regarding the issue. Moreover, it also entails certain belief.
However, a plethora of prominent Serbian scientists have strongly opposed any further discussion on this topic stating that it would be as absurd as discussing whether the Earth is flat. Biljana Stojković, the professor of evolutionary biology at the Faculty of Biology, University of Belgrade claims that the petition is not scientifically based and it is yet another attack of the creationists. Thereby, she adds that scientist are expected to discuss scientific matters with people who know nothing about science and do not want to understand, perceiving it as a big problem. Željko Tomanović, the dean of the Faculty of Biology, University of Belgrade, remarked that the petition is nothing new but another attempt of creationists to prevail even though their ideas are not scientifically justified. Thereby, he expressed his convinction that state institutions would not regard the petition seriously. Psychologist and Member of Parliament Žarko Korać claims that the initiative for the revision of the theory of evolution study in education and renunciation of scientific achievements would return Serbia a few centuries back. Korać asserts that the Assembly is not the place for scientific discussions, but they should be held at scientific institutions. He accentuated that there is no modern biology without the theory of evolution as its base. Furthermore, he reminded on the similar initiative in 2004 by Minister Ljiljana Čolić who demanded the abolition of the theory in the eighth grade biology textbooks and added that it was perhaps the only Serbian news that went around the whole globe. In addition, he pointed that Religious Education is a school subject teaching the creationist theory of origin therefore, students have the opportunity to freely learn about it.
What is intriguing about such petitions seeking to mollify Darwinist theory, they never originate from Serbian Orthodox Church, but academic circles. On this occasion, Serbian Orthodox Church has not referred to this initiative in any way although the reaction of the scientific community is quite intense. In the daily news, the standpoints of scientists from diverse fields may be only found. Moreover, many theologians and professors at the Faculty of Orthodox Theology in Belgrade are not allowed to take part in public discussions regarding the issue without the consent of the Patriarch of the Serbian Orthodox Church himself. Thereby, the opinion of diverse scientists is more present in the newspapers and panels.

The relation of the three cases
Apart from the three successive decades of the appearance, what relates the three cases presented in the paper? These three events represent some kind of resurrection against techno-ideologies of “progress” with no regard to ethical values. They bring a very important aspect of rethinking processes of historical change based on the Orthodox experience and new sensitivity towards spirit of time. Dictionary represents the revival of Orthodox medieval legacy, Žarko Vidović marks his lifetime as a very notable thinker and intellectual in whose work Orthodoxy is key point, and Ljiljana Čolić exemplifies an attempt to reintroduce religion in secular life. They initiate the question of Orthodoxy in the contemporary society that is oriented toward modernization, fostered by technology, whose sensibility is mostly atheistic. Contrary to the generally accepted social trend, they do not accentuate modernization, but tradition, sacrifice, holism and religion as the center of human endeavor. All of them, each in a specific manner, lean on the thought of Mahatma Gandhi that “those who say that religion has nothing to do with politics do not know what religion means” (Gandhi 1927, 268–9). From their stance, religion is the nucleus of one nation and impetus to ethics and social and political processes. Thereby, in specific manner, Dictionary of Technology and the attempt by Ljiljana Čolić orbit around the thought of Vidović and his attempt to revitalize the experience of Orthodoxy. However, what connects them is also the fact that they have been neglected or silenced in the past. Only recently do they attract academic attention. Dictionary appears to be in the mainstream of academic attention, Ljiljana Čolić in the center of media attention due to the recent petition and awakening of the evolution issue and Žarko Vidović is gradually becoming a frequently researched intellectual and philosopher, whose work further philosophical thought can lean on.

Science-religion divergence
Implying that the relationship between science and religion is uneasy proves to be undeniable; however, it seems insufficient. Since the “soft” communist regime ended, it would be expected that the position of the Church has been strengthened as in the neighboring countries. However, in Serbia, the situation has been more complex than it might seem. It is evident that the dissent has not ended with the neoliberal stance. The position of the Church has not improved much, that is, Orthodoxy is perceived as secondary to the scientific-technological aspects of society. Furthermore, science, fostered and supported by neoliberalism, is often being developed to the detriment of Orthodoxy and Orthodox Church. Perhaps the most illustrative instance on behalf of this statement is Monastery Gračanica near the city of Valjevo, whose age cannot be precisely determined although it is quite possible that the original church was built around the 12th century, at the time of the father of Saint Sava, the forerunner of the dynasty Nemanjić, Stefan Nemanja (later the Saint Simeon the Myrrh-Streaming), by one of his brothers. It is distinctive in churches architecture testifying to the richness of the Orthodox heritage which cannot be refuted. Despite that, the value of Gračanica is outweighed by the technological needs of an artificial lake as the part of the Stubo-Rovni dam. Last year, Gračanica was flooded because it is located on the designated position of the dam. Despite the protest organized by public, the monastery is still under water. The question of the invaluable medieval heritage has not even been raised by the government and people pursuing their technological needs. Thereby, there is readiness of science and technology, supported by the state and neoliberal pattern, to destroy the centuries-old church of inestimable historical, architectural, cultural and above all religious value. Hence, the image of Gračanica drowning is a proper expression of the technology–religion dissent.

Instead of Conclusion
These three events represent some kind of resurrection against techno-ideologies of “progress” with no regard to ethical values. This is a minor part of the instances mentioned to better illustrate that the development of science in the neoliberal state still poses a threat to Orthodox legacy. While in other countries, the clash faded together with communist regime, Serbian Orthodox Church is still in a difficult position. Due to that, the perception of the correlation of science and religion seems quite complex and manifold. The three focal points of Serbian intellectual history bring a very important aspect of rethinking processes of historical circumstances thus raising the question of religion in the world of modernist frame, challenging the thought that science and technology are the only impetus of social dynamics. However, it is noticeable that there should be more openness for the exchange in the current paradigm of rationality and modernization. It therefore is one of the great tasks today – to initiate a multitude of dialogues across diverse disciplines so as to notice where the Orthodoxy has been regarded as the contradiction of the scientific truth or not, as well as whether religion has to be inferior to the scientific-technological progress.

Further reading:

Бошковић, Душан; Петровић, Александар (2015): Повратак из земље змајева – Речник технологије 33 године после [Return from the Land of Dragons, Dictionary of Technology – 33 years later], Београд: Институт за филозофију и друштвену теорију.
Видовић, Жарко (1986): Огледи о духовном искуству [Experiments on Spiritual Experience], Београд: Сфаирос.

Gandhi, Mahatma (1927): The Story of my Experiments with Truth. Ahemadabad: Jitendra T. Desai.

Zlatic, Bogdan. Despotovic, Nedeljko (2001) Bez grada i bez zakona [Without City and the Law]. Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.
Mamford, Luis (1986): Mit o mašini 2 (Pentagon moći) [Myth of the Machine 2 (Pentagon of Power)],. Preveo Nikica Petrak. Zagreb: Grafički zavod Hrvatske.
Rečnik tehnologije [Dictionary of Technology] (1981): Beograd: Vidici, 1–2.
Речник технологије – 33 године после [Dictionary of Technology 33 Years Later] (2014). Научни скуп. Београд: Институт за филозофију и друштвену теорију Универзитета у Београду.
Речник као анти-утопија [Dictionary of Technology as Anti-Utopia] (2016): Округли сто. Београд: Институт за европске студије.
Чолић, Љиљана (2005) Пут – приповест једног неуспешног министра [Path – the Narrative of a Failed Minister], Београд: Хришћанска мисао.
BBC News, “Serbia reverses Darwin suspension“, accessed 7/7/2017.
Politika „Darvinisti i kreacionisti“, accessed 7/7/2017.

The Telegraph "Darwin is off the curriculum for Serbian schools", accessed 7/7/2017.


Serbian resume:

Питање православног искуства у Србији

Рад се бави односом науке и религије у контексту три различита догађаја у модерној српској историји. Средиште чине Речник технологије – спис из 1981, Жарко Видовић, значајан хришћански аутор чији су главни радови објављени деведесетих и покушај Љиљане Чолић, министра образовања и спорта 2004. године, да изврши одређене измене у школству. Рад описује ове случајеве из више разлога; они покривају период од три узастопне декаде, покрећу питање религије у свету модернистичких оквира изазивајући идеју да су наука и технологија једини поуздани покретачи друштвене динамике. Сви су наишли на негативну реакцију: рад Жарка Видовића су прећутали, а друга два догађаја наишла су на оштру политичку осуду.


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