Conversatio Divina

Part 10 of 12

Christian Maturity as Loving Relationships?

Brent Slife

The ninth session of the 2024 Martin Institute Christian Formation Workshop featured a presentation by Dr. Brent Slife (psychology, Brigham Young University) and comments by Dr. Nicholas Gibson (independent scholar). The session was moderated by Dr. Jeff Schloss (biology, Westmont College). Dr. Slife’s paper was titled “Christian Maturity as Loving Relationships?” This session continues our attempt to explain the problem of Christian immaturity/malformation and consider actionable steps toward fostering greater spiritual and moral vitality among Christian individuals and groups.

Below is a summary and some key quotes from Dr. Slife’s paper. In the video, Dr. Slife briefly summarizes the main points of his paper and Dr. Gibson offers additional comments.

Download and read the full presentation paper, Christian Maturity as Loving Relationships?, by Brent Slife.

01.  Summary

As a psychologist Slife recognizes the significance and value of loving relationships. He connects the human desire to be loved and to love to the “great commandment” to love God (vertical) and neighbor (horizontal). For Slife, the cultivation of loving relationships (both vertical and horizontal) is key to Christian maturation. However, as he sees it, our cultural individualism has created an overemphasis on the vertical aspect of formation at the expense of the horizontal. In response, Slife calls for a change of emphasis “from the maturing of Christian individuals to the maturing of Christian relationships.”  

After detailing the “individualistic” anthropology behind Christian immaturity, Slife proposes a “holistic” anthropology as a corrective. He distinguishes the individualistic from the holistic anthropology based on how they understand relationships. For example: 

  1. The main unit “for the individualistic relationist is the self-contained individual or person, whereas the main unit of social reality for the holistic relationist is the betweenness or connection among persons.” 
  2. The individualistic relationist views the “self as the ultimate end of virtually any action, the ultimate purpose or reason for that action,” whereas for the holistic relationist “the relationship itself should always be the ultimate end.” 
  3. For the individualistic relationist “communities are viewed as the instruments of whatever individual goals, whatever motives or purposes, self-contained persons may entertain,” whereas “community is, after all, the relationship of relationships for the holist. Community cannot be considered the instrument of a self, because the self is already a kind of community.”  

Slife then ponders the significance of this anthropological distinction for Christian maturity. He fears that, “without something like holistic relationality . . . our maturity toward the Great Commandment will remain locked in a culture of individualism.” Again, Slife’s concern is that individualism emphasizes the vertical (love of God) but downplays the horizontal aspect (love of neighbor). Importantly, for Slife, love goes both ways. If we do not love our neighbor then it cannot be said that we love God, and vice versa.  

Slife grounds his holistic anthropology in the relational image of God. As his image bearers, Slife believes we can attain a mature holistic relationality. He is aware that his holistic model may sound as if we should all just be nice to one another, not have opinions, and avoid conflict. He pushes back against this kind of false, surface-level peace insisting that his vision of holistic relationality is not an easy path. It requires something akin to Paul’s example of “tough love,” a willingness to confront one another when necessary. Slife points to St. Therese of Lisieux’s interactions with her sisters as an example of a holistic relationality that involves tough love. Slife urges us to follow her example in fostering a holistic anthropology as members of a church body where the messiness of relationality is lived out together.  


02.  Key Quotes

“What would Christian maturity look like from the viewpoint of these two developing relationships, our vertical relationship with God and our horizontal relationship with neighbors? After all, this declaration of Jesus is the “greatest” of all commandments, and “all the law and the prophets” depend on it (Mt 22: 38-40).” 

“Any focus on the development of Christian relationships would need to consider both dimensions of the Great Commandment, the vertical and the horizontal. It goes without saying that the vertical dimension is crucial. But the biblical phrase preceding the horizontal — ‘a second is like it’ — seems to indicate that both dimensions are significant. Indeed, the vertical may not even be separable from the horizontal. As Jesus put it to Simon Peter: ‘do you love me?… Then feed my sheep’ (Jn 21: 15-17).”  

“The terms ‘individualistic’ and ‘holistic’ stem not from how much they value relationships, but rather how they understand relationships. While the individualistic relationist understands relationship to arise from the individual identities involved, the holistic relationist understands individual identities to stem from the relationships involved.” 

“There are just too many obstacles in Western individualist culture, including the educational practices we may have counted on to grow this love. Most of these impediments are fairly well known in Christian circles. Nonetheless, I wonder how widely it’s known that some of these hurdles are concealed in the very way we pursue loving relationships. These obstacles may not only keep us from the horizontal love we should give.”  

03.  Application Questions

  • How has individualism made inroads into our personal and ministerial models of formation?  
  • Slife challenges us to get into the messiness of horizontal relationships. However, many of us, and those to whom we minister, got burned out trying to “love our neighbor.” A lot of us are here because we found respite in spiritual practices that forged a deep interiority with God. We might sense that we are at risk of losing this intimacy if we follow Slife’s advice. How might we risk the move outward to love others without compromising the vertical dimension?  
  • How might our models of discipleship balance an overemphasis on the vertical dimension of love with the horizontal love of neighbor? 
  • How might our ministries seek to form this horizontal dimension of love?