The Rise of Christianity and Individualism

The socio-spiritual phenomenon beginning circa 33 AD inaugurated an era of ever-deepening emphasis on the social reality of the individual, in terms of her or his status and rights, merits and responsibilities, and origins and opportunities. The various religions of Christianity are not individualistic ideologies per se. Indeed Christianities historically and geographically have inculcated tens of thousands of institutionalized structures designed to give prominence to community based and collectivist forms of social organization, value normalization, and moral education. Churches speak of their communal existence through congregational participation as “the body of Christ,” a metaphor of the unity of all its members into a single body unified by ritualistic and soteriological association. Worldwide, altruistic charity has often been associated with church-related motivations in television, newspapers, and news media. Notwithstanding, individualism emerged as a new way of thinking and acting that grew in seventeenth century Europe. At this stage it was confined to purely secular sectors of society and indeed may have attracted some heterodoxical condemnations from church authorities against its philosophical proponents at the time of its initial formulation. It was in the context of the political and economic rights of the propertied that the initial dogmas of individualism, with imperatives for behavior and property protection, were classically formulated. At the time this was a more or less secular domain of concern. Nevertheless Christianity would go on to re-shape the modern notion of the individual in a way that restructured societal self-conception and organization forever after. A force as powerful as Christian faith revolutionizes social realities it touches. As the dove that lighted upon Jesus’ shoulder after baptism in river Jordan, the history of the individual before and after, has never been the same. With the rise of Christianity, people had the opportunity to choose whether they wanted to believe in Jesus as God’s Messiah or to deny Him. Faith, previously a matter of birthright in the Jewish milieu from which Christianity emerged, became a matter of personal choice. Jesus says, “Do not think that I came to bring peace on Earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I came to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s enemies will be the members of his household. He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who does not take his cross and follow Me is not worthy of Me. He who has found his life will lose it, and he who has lost his life for My sake will find it.” (Matthew 10:34–39 NASB) Judaism saw religion as a product of ethnicity and birthright, situating religion squarely in the domains of community based, collectivist forms of social organization. Penance was earned by a Jewish community when it unitedly sacrificed non-human animals to appease the indiscriminate wrath of God for their collective transgressions as a community. This relationship existed in Christianity at the level of the individual, where religious allegiance became a matter of personal choice, salvation became a function of faith in Jesus, and ethnicity and community – indeed all manner of collectivist social organization – were categorically subordinated to individual religious conscience. Communities bound by blood were transmuted into congregations constructed on personal faith, God’s chosen people through family origin and birthright were transformed into communities of salvation through the inner experience of belief in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Protestantism further pioneered the framework of rights and responsibilities that led to individualism as a cultural and economic status quo. Max Webber insightfully deconstructs the involved sociological link between the protestant work ethic and the imperatives and motivations central to economic laissez-faire capitalism, within which individualism flourished widely. The stage was set for industrialization, the scientific revolution, unilateral economic growth, and various associated global challenges.