Early Christianity

Early Christianity is another decisive move towards the personal stagestage[6]. Christianity made the person the centre of the religious life in a way that was unique in the history of religion: it took the personalism inherent in Judaism to an extreme. Religion is no longer identified with a particular group of people or nation. It becomes a question of personal choice. The essential message of Christianity is that ‘God shows Himself in the freedom of individual human action... Without the freedom, and the historical development of the human to which it gives rise, there would be no God' (McMullin, 1987, p.78). An individual became the image of God. The internalisation of sin (that replaced sacrifice) led to taking the inner world of self-reflection seriously. Personal psychology became important. Augustine (and later on Bonaventure and others) urged introspection, descending into the depths of oneself as a way of discovering God.

Of course, the conventional stage was still powerful in early Christianity, reflected in various polytheistic tendencies. Everybody assumed that there were many otherworldly beings. St Paul, for example, referred to Thrones, Dominations, Sovereignties and Powers. These invisible forces were believed to be the ancient gods that were intermediaries between humans and the One. Gnostics also believed in an array of supernatural entities. In Eastern Europe, polytheistic elements were incorporated in the form of saints that are worshiped even nowadays. However, the most important of such elements was tritheism: the belief that there are three emanations of God: Father, Son and Spirit. In the Orthodox church, where the previous stage was more prominent, the idea of the trinity was central. It has never been as important in the West as it has remained for the Eastern church. The Greeks always started with the three hypostases, while the West began with the notion of God's unity and then considered the three entities within that unity. When Western Europe moved further towards individualism, this issue caused the first schism. Individualism was also reflected in the Catholic church by an elaborate hierarchy, with one person at the top (i.e. a pope). In any society the priesthood had a prominent role, but never before was so much power concentrated in the hands of one man, who was in most cases even above kings.

However, even in the West, in periods of crises and later in the time of decline, polytheistic elements would resurface, indicating a retreat to the conventional stage. Armstrong writes that ‘soldier saints like St George, St Mercury and St Demetrious figured more than God in first crusaders' piety and, in practice, differed little from pagan deities' (1993, p.229). During the 14th and 15th centuries, people in Europe were more and more making other human beings the centre of their spiritual life. The medieval cult of Mary and of the saints increased alongside the devotion to Jesus the man. Even nowadays in some catholic societies (e.g. in Ireland or South America) saints or the cult of Mary are dominant.

  • [6]. Although nominally polytheistic, the Roman Empire, within which Christianity developed, contributed to this shift. Somewhat paradoxically, the winning of individualistic values against collectivistic ones was signalled by Caesar's abolition of the Roman republic (the reason: his personal worth).