Monday, October 13, 2014

The Role of Christianity in the Promotion of Individualism

collage: Four fathers of individualism: Jesus, John Calvin, St. Augustine & David Hume
This post is part of my ongoing effort to understand the origins of Western society and its fundamental tenets. I have already discussed the contributions of Judaism (See The Gifts of the Jews: Why Jews Are Loathed or Loved and The Meaning, Origins, and Evolution of the Jewish Concept of Tikkun Olam - Repairing the World), and now I am wondering about the contributions of Christianity. For now, I have come up with what seem to me three major contributions: individualism, love, and the equality of all men. This post will discuss the first item. This post is also part of the book I am writing about How to Repair the World. For previous chapters browse this label: World Repair - The Book.
Although it is true that the Old Testament introduced individuals to the stage of history, a subject I discussed previously (see  The Gifts of the Jews: Why Jews Are Loathed or Loved ),  the individualism that we encounter in the Bible is a very far cry from what we consider individualism today, and it seems to me that the process of transformation from the initial understanding of this concept to our current one, is an important legacy of Christianity, perhaps even its most important one. This certainly is the stance taken by Jung in his discussion of the psychological role of Jesus.[1] 
In this view, Jesus is both a symbol and a model of the ultimate individual, the human being that has become all a human being can be – one with the Divinity. In other words, a human being that has integrated the contents of the unconscious and is now identified with the Self, which is God, which is Jesus. Needless to say, the fact that the psychological meaning of the appearance of the man-god Jesus was not articulated in such terms is of no consequence. What is and remains important is that Jesus was seen as a role model, as someone that every Christian should imitate. Indeed Jesus himself articulates this idea numerous times as did Paul, St. Augustine, and others throughout the entire history of the Church.[2] In fact, the very existence of St Augustine's confession is seen as a new stage in the development of the individual, since it establishes the individual as an author in general and as "the author of his life in particular.[3] In any case, the question in Christianity was never "should Jesus be imitated and followed?", but rather how exactly this should be carried out.
In short, a good Christian desires to become an individual like Jesus, a person that has a direct and personal relationship with God/Jesus and is thus answerable first and foremost to God/Jesus and not to man or the laws of man. This idea of the autonomous individual, one who is capable of making moral decisions for himself and by himself and is responsible for the results of his actions is the seed that eventually formed the basis for Western individualistic society.
As others of have noted, the appearance of Jesus and the consolidation of the individual was the culmination of a previous, lengthy process of individuation. For instance, Jayne traces the emergence of an individualistic lexicon in Hebrew and Greek texts, noting the increasing frequency of references to the future, abstract nouns, and personal character, which become more detailed and complex with time, until the people speaking or being described are entirely "subjects".  Jaynes points to the difference between the direct unmediated prophecies of Amos, "who does not consciously think before he speaks, in fact he does not think at all" and the deep reflections of Ecclesiastes.[4] Similarly, Butterfield[5] mentions Jeremiah 31:33 as a significant turning point in the development of individuality:  "But this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel: After those days,” saith the Lord, “I will put My law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts, and will be their God, and they shall be My people". This idea definitely seems to foreshadow the Christian concept of obedience to the law by way of the heart, and points to an increase in the responsibility that the individual has for his own moral behavior. In other words, individuals are conceived of as able to stand before God as individuals and without the need for a collectively mediated experience, such as a temple sacrifice. The imminent shift to a more individual moral code is also evident in another verse from the same chapter: "In those days they shall say no more: ‘The fathers have eaten a sour grape, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.’ But everyone shall die for his own iniquity: every man that eateth the sour grape, his teeth shall be set on edge."[6] For Butterfield, this shift is in preparation for the establishment of the individual as an authority that can confront the State, the church and even God Himself. He also points out that this shift did not occur within Judaism, which "appears to have hardened and caked into a rigid corporate system".[7]
Thus it was left to Christianity to further the psychological cause of individualism by codifying, consolidating, and spreading the message of Jesus. In doing so, Christianity created a large geographic and demographic basis for the individualistic society  - a feat Judaism was incapable of performing - while also preserving the individual's place firmly within the confines of the Church. In other words, the individual was free to develop within the religious tenets and institutional structure the Church, and indeed it did so.  Following Morris[8] and Burckhardt[9], Shanahan describes the developments that occurred in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. In the Middle Ages we see increasing references to the self, to one's emotions, an emphasis on autobiography, self-discovery, the use of personal experience in sermons, and increasing moral authority of the individual. In the Renaissance we have a great enhancement of the interior life of the self, manifest in the rise of the individual as an object of interest in itself, not as a vehicle of confession and religious transformation. Biographies, detailed, personalized portraits, more emotionally specific poetry, and the veneration of the human body, which Shanahan views as part of the increase in individualism, mark this period. However, as Bynum[10] notes, the advances in individualism in the Middle Ages occurred within the context of the Church itself, and were actually accompanied by an increase in different forms of collective Christian activity. The Renaissance did not fundamentally alter this situation; this happened with the Reformation.
The translation of the Bible into languages other than Latin and then into the vernacular was the first step in breaking the monopoly of the Church on mediating between man and God. This occurred gradually throughout the 15th century and was one of the important events that preceded and caused the Reformation itself. The availability of the Church's fundamental texts, made possible due to the newly invented printing press, meant that people could read and think about these texts if they wished to and also interpret them as they saw fit, and when people begin to think for themselves, anything can happen…and in this case what happened was the Reformation.
The effect of the Reformation on the development of individualism was profound. The split in the Church marked the first time in about a thousand years that its authority was challenged by an equally legitimate religious interpretation, which quickly developed into many interpretations; the floodgates had been opened and new sects arose almost daily. Some succeeded and are still with us today, some died out quickly. But the point was made: educated men were able and willing and perhaps even obligated to read the holy texts for themselves and interpret them as they saw fit. This saw an unprecedented increase in the freedom of the individual and in the responsibility placed on the individual, a trend that reached its logical, radical conclusion in the Calvinist doctrine.
Weber[11] famously pointed out the connection between Protestantism and capitalism, remarking that the Lutheran concept of a "calling" or vocation for each individual was merged with the Calvinist doctrine of predestination and justification by works to form the ethical basis for the accumulation of wealth, which became a clear sign of being one of the "elected". Calvinist doctrine is seen as forming an image of God that is so remote and so uninterested in human affairs as to leave the individual believer to make the connection with the Divine on his own. This loneliness produces great uncertainty, because how is one to know if one is elected? Previously, believers could confess and be reassured of God's interest and forgiveness through the ministrations of the Church, but for Protestants this type of mediation was no longer available. Calvinism solved this problem through justification by works, thus forming the basis for capitalism, but the problem of certainty did not go away.

Individualism after Christianity
The next steps in the development of individualism were to free the individual completely from the constraints of religion altogether. At this stage the Church became an obstacle in the way of the establishment of the autonomous individual. Gradually it turned into a nuisance and, finally, it became a much maligned part of history. With the removal of the Church and God, the individual found himself on very flimsy ground. Previously people were assured that the world was a rational and basically benevolent place, and in any case all iniquities in this life would be corrected in the next. But what if there is no "next" and what if the world is not rational? How can the individual be certain of his own judgments if he was not born in the image of God and does not inhabit God's rational, well-ordered world? Protestantism turned the individual into an independent moral agent and seeker of truth, responsible for making good use of his time on earth. But all of these are most difficult problems for the secular person, and in fact much of Western philosophy has been occupied with them ever since. What is the truth in a secular world and what is the basis for morality? How can one know for certain the difference between right and wrong?
British philosopher David Hume[12] took the first step in articulating the loneliness of the individual and his dependence upon himself and his perceptions. This led to an attempt to understand the workings of the individual mind, the instrument of perception, which eventually led to the scientific study of the mind – psychology. Psychology represents, perhaps, the apex of Western individualism: a complete and utter preoccupation with the individual and his inner machinations. Unfortunately, secular psychology has been unable to resolve the most basic problems caused by the removal of God from the human equation. In other words, our society has still not been able to raise an individual that can successfully stand on his own, an individual that is psychologically self-sufficient. This, I believe, is at the heart of Western society's current crisis: a prevalence of individuals whose loneliness and anxiety is only attenuated by historically unprecedented wealth.
From a Jungian point of view, the matter is clear: if God is the Self, no amount of money, medication, alcohol, sex, drugs or even philosophy will solve the most basic problem of the modern, autonomous individual: how to remain connected to the Self while preserving one's autonomy. Once a stable connection is established with the Self, the questions of truth, meaning, morality, and the validity of our perceptions are solved, because the Self is the truth. This is the psychological meaning of that fundamental Christian verse: "Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me." [13]
In summary, the development of individualism was a necessary step in the evolution of man, initiated and developed through Judaism and Christianity, but it is by no means the final one. The next step will be discussed in detail in part three of this book.

Related posts:

Christianity and Individualism Part 2: A Look at Arab-Christians in Israel and the Copts in Egypt

Why Religious People Are Happier: A Jungian Explanation

Resolving the Creationism–Darwinism Debate Using Jungian Theory

Desiderius Erasmus: Reformer, Humanist, And The World's First Best-Selling Author

Butterfield, Herbert. "Reflections on Religion and Modern Individualism." Journal of the History of Ideas (1961): 33-46.
Bynum, Caroline Walker. "Did the twelfth century discover the individual?." The Journal of Ecclesiastical History 31, no. 01 (1980): 1-17.

Johnson, Paul. The History of Christianity. New York: Touchstone, 1976.
Jung, Carl Gustav.  Answer to Job. London: Ark Paperbacks,1984 [1954]
à Kempis, Thomas. The Imitation of Christ.
Smither, Edward,  L. Augustine as Mentor: A Model for Preparing Spiritual Leaders. Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2008, p. 230.
The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 7 "Imitation of Christ." New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. 30 Sept. 2014
Shanahan, Daniel. Toward A Genealogy of Individualism. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1972.

[1] Carl Gustav Jung, Answer to Job (London: Ark Paperbacks,1984 [1954])      
[2]  For example: John 14:6 " I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life; no man cometh unto the Father, but by Me"; Luke 9:23 "And He was saying to them all, "If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me"; St Augustine exhorted Christians: "If we truly love him, let us imitate him, for we can yield no better fruit of love than the example of our imitation" (Sermon 304.2.2, quoted in Edward L. Smither, Augustine as Mentor: A Model for Preparing Spiritual Leaders [Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2008, p. 230]), and of course The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis, written in the 15th century which is, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia, the second most popular religious book in the world, after the Bible ("Imitation of Christ." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 7. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. 30 Sept. 2014
[3]Daniel Shanahan, Toward A Genealogy of Individualism, (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1972, p.40).
[4]  Julian Jaynes's The Origin of the Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, quoted in Daniel Shanahan, Toward A Genealogy of Individualism, (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1972, p.31)
[5] Herbert Butterfield, "Reflections on Religion and Modern Individualism." Journal of the History of Ideas (1961): 33-46.
[6]  Jeremiah, 31: 29-30
[7] Butterfield, p. 36. One can argue that this system has only increased in rigidity and complexity throughout the ages.
[8] Collin Morris, The Discovery of the Individual 1050-1200 (New York: Harper & Row 1972).
[9]  Jacob Burckhardt, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (New York: New American Library, 1960).
[10] Caroline Walker Bynum, "Did the twelfth century discover the individual?" The Journal of Ecclesiastical History 31, no. 1 (1980): 1-17.
[11] Weber as presented by Shanahan, p. 64-68.
[12] Shanahan, p. 81-82
[13]  John 14:6

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