Context Needed


Kinesiologists have determined, according to a report in a July 2014 issue of Time magazine, that human beings can run a race of one hundred meters no faster than 9.29 seconds.  This time is actually 15/100 second faster than a reporter for the BBC determined after consultations with mathematicians in 2012.  The terminus in racing time is determined by the laws of physics and the limitations of human anatomy.  This means that as athletes continue to reach the maximum of human potential, such races will be increasingly closer, with the winner outpacing his or her rivals by only thousandths of seconds.  To the observer, the race may be thrilling but the speed at which the athletes actually run will be entirely lost without context.


Consider looking out the window of a passenger plane cruising at 500 miles per hour at thirty thousand feet.  You watch as the jet flies past some point on the ground and imagine that you are just inching along.  The real speed of the aircraft cannot be easily determined unless you are flying by another aircraft close by at the same altitude (which would be reason to panic).   To see how fast runners are really going you would need to have an ordinary human being running the same race.  Indeed, during the 2012 London Olympics, Jonathan Kay, columnist for the National Post, suggested that each race should include a non-athlete for comparison. 

The idea of context is at the heart of Maimonides’ explanation of evil.  In his Guide of the Perplexed he addresses the question that some consider to be the most difficult challenge to those who believe in the traditional concept of God, namely, if God is all good and all powerful, how can there be evil in the world?  If God is all good, He would want evil eradicated.  If God is all powerful, He would have the ability to eradicate evil.  Yet the fact that evil persists means that either God is not all good or God is not all powerful.  In either case, the traditional conception of God would be refuted.

Maimonides offers an ingenious explanation based on context.  As a topographical feature of the earth, mountains cannot exist independent of valleys.  Were there no valleys, there could be no mountains.  Any elevation above ground level, that is, a mountain, necessarily creates a depression beside it.  To have mountains means having valleys.  By analogy, the same is true with other phenomenon.  Light cannot be experienced without comparison to darkness.  For light to exist, the possibility for darkness must also exist.  In moral terms, good cannot exist with the possibility of evil.  Evil is the context that allows human beings to appreciate the good.  So the existence of evil is not a challenge to God’s power or beneficence.  The existence of evil is merely the contextual necessity for identifying what is good.


Words to Live By

What lies behind you and what lies ahead of you pales in comparison to what lies inside you.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

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