Modern Theological Figures

From the middle of eighteenth century, the Serbian Orthodox Church used Russian church literature and the Russian language as a model. Later, Russian Slavophiles had their best bastion in the Serbian Church and they helped Serbian schools and churches in Turkish Ottoman regions. Most of the Serbian theologians in the nineteenth century studied at theological faculties in Russia, and religious books from these schools were used in Serbia. Church sermons and works of famous Russian churchmen and writers were translated, but these sermons were not comprehensible to the faithful in Serbia. In the Serbia of that time there was no strong theological thinker capable of adapting Russian ideas to the Serbian milieu. There were very few independent theological works and they were without great value. They were mostly compilations of Russian and French ethical writings lacking in wider spiritual influence. Serbian theological writing at the beginning of the twentieth century was mostly composed of apologetic and polemic works. This theology offered some knowledge and information about Christ, the Gospel, the Church and Christianity, but in essence it consisted of sterile definitions, which transformed Christian faith and life into religious and ethical systems.

In the kingdom of Serbia, because of political quarrels and dynastic conflicts, there were two streams in the Church, one of them sympathetic with Russia and the other with the liberal West. With the break out of the October Revolution in 1917 every possibility for education in Russia and Serbia stopped and theologians turned to Britain and Greece.

Bishop Nikolaj Velimirovic (1880-1956) is considered to be one of the most talented. He studied in Switzerland, at Oxford and in Russia. Most authors who wrote about him pointed out that with him a new era in Serbian Orthodox theology began, which was to be continued and deepened by Justin Popovic (1894-19 79) and others. In his early works Velimirovic; was prepared to entertain some kinds of reform in Orthodoxy, which his opponents explained was the result of studying in the West. Later, Velimirovic would start to show signs of his struggle with European history and culture. After that came his radical denunciation of European thinking and civilization and the glorification of Serbian and Russian peasantry. The essence of Velimirovic's and Popovic's thinking was a critique of European humanism, civilization, and materialism. Popovic; was celebrated as a famous teacher of Orthodoxy, and he wrote that because European culture takes humanity as its foundation, making humanism its main architect, European man believes he can proclaim himself God. For this reason, he thought, nihilism and anarchism would be the logical outcome of western hubris.

A whole line of younger Orthodox theologians from that time held similar opinions. Leading Serbian theologians tried to revitalize the heritage of St Sava, representing him as a saint and leader of the Serbian people. Polemical postures towards Islam, Catholicism and western culture generally, which dated from times other than that of St Sava himself, were integrated into the theological concept of svetosavlje (the teachings of St Sava). This theology of nationalism was used first to make possible an ideological meeting-place for all Serbs who lived in different parts of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. Further more, svetosavlje was used to bridge the gap which grew between the Church and Serbian intellectuals, who were alienated as a result of the influence of western philosophical and political ways of thinking. The cult of St Sava grew in schools and in public life, as also did the promotion of the glory of the old Nemanjic dynasty. This fed into the sense of injustice from centuries of enslavement under the Ottomans, the increasing decline of Serbian dominance in Kosovo, and other issues.

After World War II, the Serbian Orthodox Church had very restricted possibilities for activities until the middle of the 1980s. Using Kosovo as an unresolved problem within Serbia and Yugoslavia, the Serbian Orthodox Church offered itself as the traditional bastion of national security and the centre of national life, as evidenced by its centuries-long role as the single institution that 'never in history betrayed the Serbian people'. The ideological basis for such an assertion emerged from the synthesis of the teachings of Nikolaj Velimirovic and Justin Popovic, two 'enduring examples and models of modern Serbian spirituality'.

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