Dissertation Abstract




Matthew A. Boswell

Coordinator: Dr. Arthur Holder

Committee: Dr. Lisa Fullam, Dr. Judith Berling, Dr. Vicki Zakrzewski

Christian spiritual formation, as it is most commonly presented and practiced in American evangelical and mainline Christianity, is misguided, aimless, and ineffective. This is in part due to a failure to make the cultivation of virtue the crux of the spiritual life and a clear, compelling definition of love its goal. I seek to remedy these shortcomings by using the resources of virtue ethics and positive psychology to construct a model of Christian spiritual development whose goal of love is realized through the increasing presence in the individual Christian of virtues of gratitude, self-care, justice, kindness, and hope.

In the first part of this dissertation I critique several prominent approaches to spiritual development before presenting an alternative approach and structure that appropriates positive psychologist C. R. Snyder’s model of hope. Hope provides theological substance and methodological guidance to spiritual formation. In the second part I articulate a goal for spiritual development—love, informed by the work of Jesuit ethicist and theologian Edward Vacek and social scientist Lynn Underwood—as well as a starting point: a love-facilitating understanding of human agency informed by my definition of love and the work of several other theologians, ethicists, and psychologists. In the third part I propose five cardinal virtues that constitute the path toward love, the cultivation of which ought to be the focus of Christian spirituality. I exhaustively and creatively define these virtues and highlight five relatively well-known individuals who exemplify each. I conclude by underscoring the centrality of Jesus to this model and highlighting some implications of this model for existing Christian congregations.

In sum, I articulate a virtue ethic of love, provide a strong moral and spiritual foundation to guide the practices and programs of Christian congregations, extend a well-respected psychological construct (Snyder’s model of hope) to a new domain (Christian spirituality), develop Vacek’s and Underwood’s theories of love, put character at the center of spiritual growth with a highly specific but spacious vision of this character, and demonstrate how virtue ethics can be integrated with the spirituality of mainline and evangelical Christians.