The Lone Runner

In a recent conversation I had, my friend made a claim which I believe has become a somewhat uncontroversial declaration today. We were discussing the purpose of religion, and it led to the idea that ‘religion is an individual pursuit.’ At the time, I accepted it as a false but mostly harmless statement. Upon further consideration, however, and a trip through my memory to remind me how often I have heard this quoted in various places and manners, it dawned on me the danger this sentiment can cause.

I wonder if the same person who holds this idea also believes that sports is an individual pursuit. I have a coworker who has been training a younger man in track – he coaches him on techniques to strengthen him, improve his speed and stamina, and gives him advice on courses he will run in the races, as well as encourage him when he is beaten. Having conquered the territory already, he was in a good position to enlighten his protégée on the difficulties he had experienced before.

Now, the young trainee is certainly an individual – he is not a puppet of his trainer. Neither is he mindlessly mimicking the actions of his elders. Yet we still would not call racing an individual’s pursuit for two reasons: Firstly, racing alone would not actually be racing. One can run alone. One can also get lost alone, as I tend towards when I run. But you can’t race against yourself – there is no one to beat to the finish line. You could break your own record over and over again, still it is not race. If you timed how long it took you to crawl across the room, and continually attempted to best it, fun it could be; strengthening it could be; racing it would not. A race requires a second – a football game demands an opponent – a fight thirsts for someone to lay out on the cold, cold floor. Secondly, were it an individual’s pursuit, everyone could claim victory as they saw fit. The finish line would be a chaotic frenzy of triumph, with Champaign bottles pulled out for those in last place as well as those in first. While this is by no means a bad sentiment (I constantly celebrate last place, where I often end up; although it is drinking to being in last place, not celebrating while claiming I was first as well), it rather defeats the point of racing, as to call the man in last an equal to the man in first is not only mistaken, but an attack on the talents of the one who truly ran faster.

What would be the point of a tournament if no one was eliminated? You can ask what the point of a tournament is, that is a valid question. You can wonder why humanity must have races, that is a worthy thought (although one quite devoid of any fun). Yet to try and both have a tournament, and not have a winner? Perhaps we should demand a writer produce a novel without using words – it would be as pointless of an endeavor.

So while we, hopefully, wouldn’t dream of calling sports an individual pursuit, where has this mantra come from that has decided religion no longer takes a community? As no man can race alone, so can no man be moral without a neighbor – so can no man be ethical without an enemy.

Just as you cannot race against yourself without abandoning the meaning of a race, so can you not be religious without losing religion. Were there to be one man left in the world, could he practice his beliefs? If no man slaps your right cheek, how will you turn the other to him? The idea is manifested most thoroughly in the ascetic who resigns from the world, hiding in the wilderness until he dies. The lone hermit who declares himself moral – what religion does he have? It is easy to live an ethical life when you have no one to hurt and no one to harm you. How do you love? Can you show mercy to a tree? Can you show grace to a rabbit? Will you call the wolf your enemy, and love him as a neighbor as he claws you? No, it is madness to claim that solitude shows morality – for there is no morality in solitude. There is only nothing. It robs the word of meaning, and then fills the void with a platitude.

Equally, to say that all in the world will find religion alone is to rejoice that the man knocked out in a boxing match triumphed over the fighter left standing. It seems a simple thing that if Islam is the correct religion, than Christianity is not. If Judaism is true, than Daoism is not. Those who swiftly claim in the course of a conversation that all religions equal truth are just as quick to call the Christian fundamentalist a dogmatically evil being. Rarely do you hear that evangelical Christians have found an individual religion as valid as Buddhism – for it is not true, either one or neither are false. That the courtesy of winning has only been extended to those politically correct religions that the modern academics have found interesting or persuasive is proof enough that no one truly believes this madness. The man who calls himself God is either God, or mad. Either the soccer game is decided by goals, or it was never a game to begin with.

Religion requires a community, and it requires a competition of sorts. This is not to say that religion is a race to the afterlife, although in a sense someone will make it there, and some will not (or no one will, possibly). But it is certainly a communal effort – which brings us back to the trainer. Just as the young runner had a trainer, so must the religious have a mentor. Jesus had his disciples, Siddhartha taught followers, Confucius led the young. The church builds up (or, in the worst cases, tears down to the bone). For it is not possible to be religious alone, you must immerse yourself in the world – you must throw yourself into the fight, and be prepared to lose. And when you do, you must have a brother or a sister to pull you back up, lest you lie in the dirt, with those who have taken defeat as a victory and claimed the dirt the sky.

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