A world-renowned religious scholar confronted what he asserts are some of life’s most vexing questions during a symposium conducted April 28 on Vogelweh.
Ravi Zacharias, a lecturer, writer and founder of an international ministry as well as a religious philosopher, explored such challenging topics as suffering, evil and life’s purpose during a presentation punctuated by rhetorical questions, anecdotes and the main speaker’s trademark wit.
A captivated audience of around 450 leaders, Soldiers, Airmen, civilians and family members from locations as distant as Belgium, Stuttgart and northern Bavaria as well as the Kaiserslautern area converged at Armstrong’s Club for the symposium.
Zacharias addressed similar topics in a lighter and more concise manner during the National Prayer Breakfast held that morning at the Ramstein Officers’ Club. More than 300 enthusiastic participants enjoyed spiritual and culinary fare during the annual community event.
The symposium featured half-hour presentations by Zacharias and Christian Hofreiter, director of Zacharias’ ministry organization and a research fellow at Oxford University. A lively question-and-answer session facilitated by Lt. Col. R. Randall Thomas, 21st Theater Sustainment Command deputy chaplain and key event organizer, followed the presentations.
Both speakers directly addressed arguments against the existence of God, purpose and transcendent meaning lodged by such prominent philosophers as David Hume and Friedrich Nietzsche as well as current scholars like Richard Dawkins, who is influential in contemporary popular culture.
Noting the problem of pain and suffering is a bottom-line question that transcends philosophies and cultures, Zacharias discussed the emotional and spiritual as well as the physical toll they impose. He also observed that these questions loom particularly large for Soldiers, who confront evil, pain and suffering in powerful and intimate ways.
On the topic of outrage over the evils of the world, Zacharias offered a colorful anecdote that suggested an inherent standard of goodness and perfection that refutes nihilism. And paradoxically, meaningless, according to Zacharias, results more often from pursuit of pleasure for its own sake than from pain. Suffering, he noted, frequently yields reflection, understanding, spiritual growth and faith. Comparing life to a drama, he also observed that knowing the author and the story line can offer useful context to life’s agonies.
Hofreiter addressed similar themes, acknowledging the daunting challenges posed by pain and suffering but emphasizing the importance of freedom and redemptive love.
“Love cannot be compelled,” Hofreiter said. “It must be freely offered.”
Freedom and love, Hofreiter observed, require choice and therefore the possibilities of error, evil and pain.
Col. Scott Hammond, TSC command chaplain, concluded the event with reflections and an invitation to prayer. Dozens of participants remained into the evening to pray and meet with chaplains and the speakers.
Participants, an impressive group in their own right ranging from aspiring ministers to high school students to curious officers, Airmen and Soldiers, praised Zacharias for confronting life’s deepest dilemmas.
“He doesn’t dodge tough questions, like the question of suffering,” said 1st Lt. Spencer Bolduc, executive officer of the 635th Movement Control Team, 39th Transportation Company, part of the TSC’s 16th Sustainment Brigade. “As Soldiers, we deal with a lot of pain. But he helps us to understand the pain is there for a reason. As we heard from the speakers tonight, the pain can be a gateway to purpose and meaning; those experiencing pain are often the ones who open their hearts to meaning.”
Some emphasized the force of Zacharias’ intellectual arguments and ability to explain those things that they consider life’s deepest dilemmas.
“I really enjoyed it because he brings the mind and heart together,” said Pfc. Muhota Mbuthia, a dental assistant who serves at the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center clinic. “He played a big role in my journey as a Christian. He unites science and soul. Hearing him talk about the problem of evil was especially powerful.”
Zacharias said he appreciates the opportunity to engage military audiences.
“We are delighted to be part of this setting and to minister to their deep questions,” Zacharias said after the symposium.
Noting these are difficult times to be in the armed forces, the India native expressed hope he and colleagues could provide Soldiers and Airmen “answers that will be meaningful and encourage them in their faith.”