Please, Go and Listen to My Students!

A Letter from Bob and Kristi Rice, serving in South Sudan

Spring 2022

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Dear friends,

“Bob,” the principal called as I walked down the outdoor corridor of Nile Theological College, carrying a mountain of books on the first week of classes. “Haven’t you prepared for your class?” he asked. “Yes, I am prepared,” I replied, “but the Academic Dean asked me to teach another class, Philosophy of Religion.” Rev. Santino, the principal, then said to me, “Okay, I have an idea. I can teach your Contextual Theology class since I am not currently scheduled to teach this semester. That will give you the time you need to prepare and teach Philosophy of Religion.” I agreed with my friend’s idea.

Philosophy of Religion Class – Nile Theological College

The greatest joy for me serving in South Sudan these five years has been my students. I am always amazed by their curiosity, thoughtfulness, intelligence, good humor, hard work, and care for me as their teacher and brother in Christ. This semester has been no different. In Philosophy of Religion, we have tackled questions such as “Why is philosophy important?” “What is God’s central attribute according to many theists (believers in God)?” “What analogies help us better understand the Trinity?” “How can Jesus be both fully divine and fully human?” “What is the major weakness of Calvinism?”  

This week we examined the greatest potential “defeater” for those who believe in God, the question of suffering and evil. As always, it was helpful for me to do the reading and preparation, and the lecture and discussion time were rich. Together we responded to this central question –

“Can I be mature, both intellectually and spiritually, be aware of the enormous and impressive amounts and depths of suffering and evil in our world, be aware also of the best anti-theistic arguments starting from the facts of evil, and still be such that Christian belief is rational and warranted for me?”
(Plantinga, 2015: 117).

My students, all of whom have lived through war and suffering at unfathomable levels, thoughtfully and carefully answered “Yes,” that we can have rational and warranted Christian belief in the face of evil and suffering. We discussed at length God’s goodness in creation and His ongoing care for us. We also discussed the idea of “sensus divinitatis,” the experience of God’s divine presence as further evidence of God’s existence and goodness. One student, a pastor, described how members of his church did not want to leave church on Easter Sunday because they had experienced God’s presence amongst them.

We then discussed how we could experience God’s peace during times of suffering, an experience we believe is not irrational, and how the reality of suffering requires a loving, pastoral response. Furthermore, we discussed how God Himself has fully entered and experienced suffering in the person of Jesus Christ, evincing that while there is terrible suffering in this world, God himself has fully entered it, suffering also.

Lastly, we discussed the breathtaking idea that our human condition is actually better off than it would have been otherwise because of evil and suffering. Our broken estate and our sinful and rebellious condition open the door for redemption, inviting us into full and eternal fellowship with a loving and merciful God. We are like the “Prodigal Son” (see Luke, chapter 15). To fully know the depths of the Father’s love, we must go astray, going our own way, before being able to comprehend the comprehensive and unfathomable love of God.

A friend whose shop at the Suk Malakia in Juba was destroyed

Suffering and evil are fitting themes as I reflect on these last few months. At the beginning of the year, the local market across from our former apartment was demolished. We have many friends and acquaintances whose lives and livelihoods were supported by “Suk Malakia” (the local market). Our friend Mary had a tea shop. Jimmy and his crew fixed televisions and radios. Kapita, Amina, Saida, and Alima sold vegetables, fruits and other sundry items. We saw, visited and connected with these friends and these friendly faces multiple times each week. They were our community, providing us with a sense of belonging in Juba. With the destruction of our market, this community was no longer present. Our friends scrambled to find new ways to support their families. Over these last few months, reading about the war in Ukraine has been terribly heartbreaking. I am always astounded when one leader causes such horrific pain and suffering for countless millions. These last few months have also been a tumultuous season for us at Nile Theological College.

Yet, in these experiences, which include the deep sadness I have felt over the fate of friends and strangers and the trauma we have experienced at the college; I can only agree with my students. Evil and suffering are not a “defeater” when it comes to the evidence and our experience of a loving, kind, and merciful God. Some persons will inevitably exclaim, “How can you believe in God with the overwhelming evidence of evil and suffering in the world?” I would gently reply to such persons, “Yes, there is evil and suffering in our world, but maybe you have not considered all the evidence when it comes to belief in a loving, just and merciful God. Please, go and listen to my students.”

Thank you, as always, for your prayers, love, and support as we serve alongside friends and colleagues in South Sudan. We wish you God’s peace and blessings during this Eastertide Season.

Grace and Peace,

Bob and Kristi

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