WHO'S IN CHARGE HERE? Evil. It's seemingly everywhere these days. Terrorism. War. Mad Cow Disease. AIDS' march of death around the world.

This evil, this suffering--while certainly not unique to our time--presents a problem for some of us more religious folks. Why is this happening? More specifically, why is God allowing this to happen? Is anybody in charge?

Enter the Sunday afternoon discussion series at St. Philip's In the Hills Episcopal Church. This is exactly the topic this popular, unique, free series will tackle on Jan. 11.

If you're not familiar with the series, you may fear that it's just some sort of Christian gobbledygook. Not so; folks of any faith, or even no faith, are more than welcome to attend. As evidence that the minds are wide open at the series, note that one of the moderators, Brad Stroup, is a Zen Buddhist.

The series got its start in September 2002, thanks in large part to the other moderator, Tom Lindell. He's an associate professor of molecular and cellular biology at the UA, and he co-teaches a class in the department on science and theology along with a Jesuit cosmologist. The class, says Lindell, has become quite popular, which is a problem, seeing as it's limited to 25 students.

"People were always asking if they could sit in," Lindell says. "But there's just no room."

Therefore, Lindell decided to take the science and theology class to St. Philip's, with the church's blessing, where he's ordained as a deacon. Every other week, on alternating Sundays, Lindell moderated the class, for free, to a "loyal following" of 40-80 people, through the 2002-2003 academic school year. It was a hit.

Last summer, Lindell and the others involved faced a dilemma: What now?

"We contemplated: How do we expand on that?" he says. Enter Lindell's friend, Brad Stroup, and a modified focus: "Living With Ambiguity: Mutually Exploring the Void."

"The rationale is that most religions out there offer certainty," Lindell says. "We're not convinced that's the right way to go."

The class, with Lindell and Stroup alternating as the moderator, has again been a success. Topics covered in the fall included: "Where Are the Edges of Our Minds?"; "What Do Our Senses Tell Us?"; and even, "What About God?" which pondered God's physical and visual realty.

The discussions--both Lindell and Stroup emphasize that they don't lecture and insist that they are not experts--are designed for anyone with any questions or curiosities to come and discuss.

"We get out of telling people the way it is," Lindell says. "We ask them to invite us into the struggle."

The Jan. 11 discussion, "The Challenge of Evil?" promises to be one of the more interesting topics.

"Evil is one of the more perplexing things that most people deal with," says Lindell, who will be moderating the discussion (though Stroup and Lindell usually both attend the discussions). "One of the biggest problems with religion is certainty issues: 'Why did God do this to me?' People have given over to God so much control; what is left for them to do? You're going to have a problem when the shit hits the fan.

"There are different ways of thinking theologically that are more liberating than being victims of a god in power É that don't involve pain, guilt and shame."

Stroup elaborates on this idea from his non-Christian point of view.

"Evil is more of a challenge for Christians than for Buddhists," he says. "We don't have the same concept of evil at all. É Evil, to me, is a distinctly Christian concept in which it's seen as a challenge through God. The deal is: If God is all-powerful, how does He allow evil to occur? In the Buddhist tradition, if God exists, that's sort of irrelevant."

Buddhists, Stroup says, tend to view everything that happens as either acts of nature, or mistakes.

"As an example, let's use Saddam Hussein. We wouldn't say he's evil; we'd say he's mistaken. He just hasn't figured it out."

The discussion of evil is the seventh of the 14 sessions in the "Living With Ambiguity" series. Upcoming discussions are slated to include, "The Opportunity of Silence," "The Problem of Perspective," "The Meaning of Nothing" and even "Was Jesus a Closet Buddhist?"

With discussions of such controversial topics, it seems these sessions could get quite heated. But while there's an occasional person who doesn't like the way a discussion is going, both Lindell and Stroup say there are never any major problems.

"Tom and I were very concerned about this," says Stroup. "We did not want it to become a lecture series. So, we decided, let's get a Buddhist bell. It sits on a cushion, and it rings three times to start. É And if someone talks longer than a couple of minutes, or gets cantankerous, we have permission to ring the bell. But we've never really had to use it."

The goal of the series, Lindell says, has been to provoke people into thinking.

"All we're trying to do is open people's eyes to new possibilities," Lindell says. "It's an awesome responsibility. People often encounter things they hadn't thought about before. Some people are challenged and shocked in a sense. But it's important to question what you believe and why you believe what you believe."

The "Living With Ambiguity" Series continues from 3:30-5:30 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 11 in the children's chapel at St. Philip's in the Hills Episcopal Church, located at 4440 N. Campbell Ave. Admission is free, and people of all faiths are invited to attend. For more information, call 299-6421.