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Revealed Religion

Christianity contributed doctrines of the freedom of the will and personal salvation that added a further dimension to human individuality. Created as equal persons in God's image, human beings enjoy inherent dignity by virtue of the divine flame that burns within their souls. Christian moral teaching replaced status, race, gender, occupation, and all other markers of social difference with one's individual orientation toward God as the determinant of the ultimate disposition of one's soul. While Judaism had conveyed some overtones of personal salvation, the dominant relation with God was conditioned by the divine covenant with the Jewish people as a whole. In contrast, Jesus' message was directed to all people who were open to his words and treated them as individuals capable of receiving divine grace and blessing. Every person, as one of God's created, could, through individual effort and renunciation of worldly concerns, render him-or herself worthy for salvation.

The implicit individualism of early Christian moral theology was reinforced by later thinkers such as St. Augustine of Hippo (354–430 C.E.). According to Augustine, all human beings possess the capacity to choose between good and evil and to choose to accept or to turn away from the divine will. Of course, the objects between which one chooses are not of equal worth. Rejecting God by preferring one's own desires yields dissatisfaction and unhappiness in one's earthly life as well as the misery of eternal damnation, whereas submitting to God properly expresses one's divinely granted freedom, the correct use of the will with which human beings have been endowed. Nevertheless, it remains up to the individual (even up to the moment preceding death) to decide whether to submit to or renounce God's offering. The individual is the final and ultimate source of the destiny of his or her own soul.

Islam did not entirely share Christianity's affinity for personal freedom of the will, emphasizing instead a strict adherence to religious law, namely, shari'a. Yet the Koran did uphold human freedom, so Muslim teaching maintained that it was the individual, not God, who was responsible for sin. Likewise, the Koran offered a vision of personal salvation that was far more embodied and carnal than Christianity's. Thus Islam, too, adopted important elements of individualism.

Despite the common perception of medieval Europe as monolithic and hostile to expressions of individualism, the period did much to extend the idea of human individuality. In law, the concept of human beings with personal rights and liberties was expressed in both secular and religious documents. In public life, the principle of individual consent to the imposition of political power (captured in the ubiquitous phrase "What touches all must be approved by all") was articulated. In moral philosophy and theology, the conception of the rational will, which defined the individual as the primary unit of analysis, was elevated to axiomatic status. Regardless of the institutional and ecclesiastical barriers to individualism, scholars have repeatedly looked to Latin Christian Europe as a source for individualism.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Incomplete dominance to IntuitionismIndividualism - Ancient Sources, Revealed Religion, The Reformation And The Aftermath, Liberalism And Individualism, Individualism And Modern Society