We have seen in the previous post what was the characteristic of American secularism: the combination of Enlightenment philosophy that saw in the rational world the answer to human problems, as well as tolerance towards the various Christian creeds that made up the colonies. Christianity had been much transformed by that time, but the fact that it was not at once abandoned for an extreme scientific rationalism–as today–shows that this phenomenon is an old one in the West, and that, ultimately, there is a Christian source to the currents that have shaped the Western mind.
I have briefly expounded in the first part that the United States, as a country with political institutions, was not born ex nihilo, as if the revolutionaries had devised something entirely new. Rather, the founding documents of the United States are framed by a uniquely western mindset that has its roots deep into history. The Declaration of Independence of 1776, as the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen of 1789, proclaim that “all men are born free and equal in rights.” The beginning of modern humanism saw in man the ultimate reality, a reality that was inviolable, endowed with freedom and reason, the two essential qualities of humankind that allowed it to not only organize societies, but also to make use of nature as a way to better its existence. Equality–political equality–of all, freedom of the individual are concepts that are deeply rooted in the Gospels: that all creatures are equal before God (Paul’s saying that there is neither Greek nor Jew, neither man nor woman), and that each individual is free to choose between good and evil (and therefore determine his own future).
A certain form of these concepts were present in ancient philosophy, but they never were as strongly conceived and formulated as in Christian writings. Plato explained in the Republic his theory of metempsychosis, or transmigration of souls. In this concept, each soul travels alternatively between our world and the upper world in a series of reincarnations. The soul could take on any possible body form, whether of a man or an animal. the body, therefore, was considered as a prison, something to be rejected. In Christianity, this concept is absent. Rather, the soul becomes the unique possession of the individual, together with the body. The status of the physical body was also elevated, since even it would be resurrected in the end of times. In this new expression of individuality, St. Augustine’s Confessions is a corner stone in Western thought. Never before had an individual person explored to such an extent his innermost personality. Augustine goes where no philosopher had gone before, [precisely because they could not go there. The Christian idea of the dual nature of Christ–god and human–was a breakthrough that not all at the time understood. Yet, it is this combination of human and divine, of personal and universal, which is the ancestor of our humanism, our modern notion of the individual person as sacred and endowed with rights and therefore inviolable. It is also what made modern psychology possible. If some of these concepts were percent in ancient philosophy, they were expressed differently, and this differences are enough to make Christian thought not a recycling of ancient philosophy, but a philosophical worldview in its own right.