Is Christianity an individual or team sport?
OK, so maybe this is not the way that most folks would phrase this question, but it tends to be the way that my coach’s-mind processes things. Moreover, no matter how you phrase the question, the wonder about whether or not one must be a part of a community of belief in order to be in a valid and valuable relationship with God has been a persistent on throughout the ages. Isn’t the faith really just about a personal relationship with God in Jesus? Why does one need others to make this happen?
Known collectively as “The Desert Fathers”, Anthony of Egypt and his contemporaries were Christian hermits that went deep into the desert wilderness of Egypt and North Africa to seek deeper communion with God away from the trappings and temptations of city life. At a certain level, these men and women were following the model set forth by several of the Old Testament prophets, John the Baptist and even Jesus himself. But I like to think of them as prefiguring ObiWan Kenobi from the Star Wars. Perhaps this is a distinction without a difference.
When we read the writings of these folks and hear the tales told of them, it is difficult to deny the efficacy of their practice. Shunning the comforts of the world and the company of others, even Christians, seems to have turned some of these folks into spiritual giants. Perhaps we’ve all been doing it wrong for generations.
Although, if you read the annals a little bit closer, you will also see that the isolation that these men and women subjected themselves to was also fraught with spiritual and even physical danger. Hunger, loneliness and spiritual desolation were not just close at hand, they threatened to consume at every turn.
In describing what behavioral economists call the “Survivorship Bias”, a form of cognitive bias, Nasim Taleb talks about the misconception that most fokls have about swimmers and their physiques.
“Too many folks think,” he says, “that is they just become an excellent swimmer, they will develop a ‘swimmer body,’ long, lean, well muscled, etc. What these folks never consider is the possibility that the way in which one becomes a truly excellent swimmer is to start with a swimmer body. Folks that don’t start off they way might just never learn to enjoy swimming very much.”
This might be the same thing that’s at work in our discussion about whether or not Christianity works best in groups or individually. Jesus and St. Paul both seem to say that Christians belong in groups. But what about those spiritual heroes, like Antony, that make great strides in the isolation of the desert. Shouldn’t we all strive to be like them? Probably not. It is more likely the case that Antony’s spiritual might, forged in the community of his youth, was what allowed him to survive his isolation rather than the other way around.