Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Željko Porobija

Željko Porobija's story

Jutarnji list*, Croatia, October 25 2015.
Unusual conversion of the former principal of the Seventh-day Adventist Seminary
Text by Tanja Rudez, European Science Writer of the Year 2015
“I joined Seventh-day Adventism exclusively because of my convictions. I was happy while I was working as a pastor, especially in the beginning. Yet, when faith disappeared, I had to go”, tells me Željko Porobija, former Adventist pastor and principal of the Adventist Seminary in Marusevec. I noticed Porobija’s name a few times during the social networks’ discussions on scientific topics, and from these discussions it could have been concluded that he was the man of exceptional erudition. However, a few days later, I found out that Željko Porobija, after almost twenty years of work, had left the pastoral service and became secularist and atheist.
“I work as a freelancer – a translator, a guest teacher as well as a web developer. Since I have a work permit for the UK I can go there. However, I still linger about that, being attached to my family and, frankly speaking, I like this region”, said Porobija when we visited him in Marusevec, a village in northwest Croatia, ten miles away from Slovenian border. Showered by a hard rain and, at first glance, secluded, Marusevec surprised us by interesting buildings of the Seventh-day Adventist Seminary (that operates here from 1975) and the secondary boarding school, founded by Seventh-day Adventist Church in Croatia. “My wife is the School’s principal and I was teaching there”, said Željko Porobija, and then he told us his interesting life story.
Birth of Faith
He was born in 1966 in Belgrade. His late father was a Catholic, coming from Bosnia and Herzegovina, while his mother was a Methodist from Macedonia.
“I joined Adventism in 1987, there was the process leading me towards that. Namely, I started studying the Bible because I was very interested. I felt a birth of faith inside of me. To be a believer within the Adventism is interesting and one may feel fine – remembered Porobija, then a student of philosophy at the University of Belgrade. “I think that the University of Belgrade was more liberal than some other universities in former communist Yugoslavia that were dominated mostly by Marxism. I acquired MA in Philosophy in Belgrade and doctoral degree at the University of Wales. I also acquired MA in Theology at the Open University in the United Kingdom”, added Porobija.
He moved to Croatia during the war in former Yugoslavia.
“I was a real Belgradian, speaking a local dialect. My wife, from Vinkovci, Croatia, worked in Belgrade. We were doing fine, but as the war was getting closer we felt the pressure because of ‘wrong blood type’. I was demanded to join the war, and I did not want that. Our daughter was a toddler, so we joined the multitude of refugees and went to Croatia. Regardless of the war, I already planned to study theology at the College in Marusevec”, said Porobija. He started working there both as the secondary school and college teacher. Then, in 1995, he became an SDA pastor in two Croatian cities
and then he came back again to Marusevec, where he worked both as the teacher and pastor and, later, as the College principal.
“One of the happiest days of my life was when I started my pastoral work. I really enjoyed being a pastor, although it is not an easy job and demands a seven-day-a-week engagement. However, even in the beginning of my pastoral work I began to doubt “, remembered Željko Porobija, who read the Bible repeatedly in order to whip off the doubts.
Supreme Being
“I read the Bible 40 times – in English, French, German, Greek… Biblical interpretation is a demanding task, and then you find out that some doctrinal claims are simply unjustified. I attempted to settle that, but it didn’t work”, said Porobija. In his case, bone of contention was creationism – a doctrine of Christian fundamentalists who hold that some Supreme Being or God created world, that is, nature and man, at once. Creationists take the Bible literally, and they are more numerous in the USA than in Europe.
“Creationism is originally an Adventist product that was later accepted by Baptists and similar Christian churches. Creationism is even today interwoven in the fundamentals of Adventist theology. Thus, on the last General Conference Session – which is the governing body of the Church and is held every fifth year – the belief in recent creation was reaffirmed. That means that the world began some 6 to 10 thousand years ago, or 20 thousand, at best. This is just like the discussion whether the distance from London to Paris is either 10 or 15 yards. So, they cannot accept that the Universe began with Big Bang 13.7 billion years ago, or that the Earths is 4.55 billion years old”, said Porobija, stressing that during his Adventist years he never fully accepted creationism.
“Perhaps the reason for that was that I was good in Biology during my school years, I even won at a Biology competition. At the end of 1990’s I was no longer creationist. I began to accept the idea of intelligent design, but I had the problems even with that. I started easily to fall apart, attempting to make some reconciliation, to build my own neo-orthodox Adventism and to be more socially engaged. Yet, whatever I tried to make that system sustainable, it would crash again and again. To my disappointment, in 2008 I did away with whole belief in supernatural. That was the last thing I wanted to happen in my life.” He recognized that then the time of agony acceded.
A Leading Theologian
“I had a steady job, regular and about average salary. I maintained good relationships with people in the SDA Church, I could not find fault with any of them. I was esteemed by fellow believers, and I became, as it were, a leading theologian. Nevertheless, I no longer belonged there ideologically. Metaphorically speaking, I felt like a gay among homophobes. I had to leave”, said Željko Porobija, who in 2013 left pastoral service and the post of the College principal.
A few months ago he joined American non-profit organization The Clergy Project (TCP), which helps present and former clergy who lost their faith in supernatural. The organization is situated in Florida, and it became well known in 2010 when Daniel Dennett, an evolutionary philosopher, published a study on five pastors who quit their faith in God.
“I joined them out of curiosity. I do not need their help, but I was interested in meeting people like me and trying to have some conversation with them. The only person who can understand a pastor who left his or her Church and faith is another pastor who did the same”, said Porobija and pointed that it is not that easy to join TCP:
“You have to send them a motivational letter, and then to have a Skype conversation so they see that you are a real person. And then they watch over lest one provoke. I published there my story and read the stories of others, exchanging some messages. This is a good project, because such people are found everywhere. Some statistics says that every Monday one of the eight pastors ponders on leaving the Church. The reasons behind that are various: some stay believers, some change their worldview or religion while some of them, just like me, say: ‘I no longer believe and I don’t know what to do with myself’”, said Porobija.
The Bible and Math
I asked him what he thinks about confessional religious education in the schools.
“It does not belong to the school. There is a noted strand even within Roman Catholic Church that shares such view. Recently, a public television made an interview with a Jesuit priest, whom I happen to know personally, and who spoke against confessional religious education in the schools. That man done his PhD in sociology at Gregoriana, Vatican, and he is exceptionally educated. As far as I know, Jesuits here were also in favor of non-confessional religious education. In my view, this is an integral part of education. Every person should know to read the Bible and I sometimes say to my dear “new atheist” friends: ‘Read the Bible more carefully.’ Namely, they use to brag that they know the Bible more than an average Roman Catholic. But I know math better than an average secondary school student, yet it does not mean that I am a mathematician”, said Porobija.
He pointed that he read some books of the world known “new atheists”, like Richard Dawkins.
“They are, mostly, written in a way of opinion journalism. If he were alive, I would prefer to listen to Christopher Hitchens. But I prefer to read Dawkins, because of his superb writing style. However, all of that is 18th century Enlightenment philosophy, enhanced, of course, with a lot of science. It was interested to me, yet, if I were a follower of Tillich or Barth I would not be undermined by that. The biggest problem with the new atheists is that they mostly speak to creationists, while they are not best prepared for the dialogue with different theological systems, like, for example, Roman Catholicism. Our Croatian “new atheists” are bothered too much with creationists and fundamentalists who are a minor group in Croatia. I would counsel them to attempt the dialogue with serious Catholic intellectuals who are here, no doubt, present, although not always publicly recognized”, said Porobija and announced that next January he will have a presentation on that topic at Skeptics in the Pub.
Impossible Reconciliation
I was interested to know whether he considers new atheists aggressive in their intention to eradicate religion for which Dennett, in his bestseller Breaking the Spell, concluded that it is a natural phenomenon, coming into existence by evolution of human brain.
“I would not say they were aggressive, because all their aggressiveness is about speaking against religion. Yet, religion came into existence in a natural way and it would be absurd to negate it. Rise of religion in human civilization definitely is connected with the switch to agrarian culture. Religion is not necessary, since the anthropologists described the tribes that are not religious at all. However, it is obvious that religion has its own history and I do not know how long it will last. I do not share the optimism of Marx and Schopenahuer that in 20, 30 or 50 years there will be no religion. Everyone has the right to his or her convictions; I think not that the believers are inferior to me. I only combat against imposing one’s religious beliefs as something unquestionable – said Porobija, who, in the end, gave a remark on dialogue between science and religion:
“The dialogue is possible, but I have become skeptical towards possibility of reconciliation between science and religion. Had it been possible, I would have made my own version of it, without leaving the Church. Honestly, science and religion hardly can be reconciled”, said Željko Porobija in conclusion.
*Jutarnji list (Morning Post) is the leading Croatian daily paper, available both in a hard copy and online. The original version of this interview you can find here:

used with permission fro author

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