In writing Spiritual Life: The Foundation for Preaching and Teaching, John Westerhoff has delivered to both Christian leaders a Christian laypeople alike a high look at the spirituality inherently expected in Christian leadership. Westerhoff, an Anglo-Catholic Episcopalian with a Protestant upbringing who leans toward Orthodox and Roman Catholic spirituality (Westerhoff, 78), conveys his views on spiritual formation candidly the six short chapters of this book which is based off a series of lectures which Westerhoff first gave at the College of Preachers in Washington, D.C. in 1992 (xv). In these chapters of this book, Westerhoff not only delves into the secrets of the spiritual life in general, he also focuses this spiritual formation onto the distinct offices of teachers and preachers. The following paper will dissect these chapters, offering a summary of each with the goal of relaying the main ideas Westerhoff originally directed to his audience of pastors in 1992, and will also evaluate the various pros and cons of the book as a whole.
To understand properly the major theses of Spiritual Life, one must work through the short book chapter by chapter, just as Westerhoff had first delivered the information lecture by lecture to his audience of pastors. This section will offer a brief summary of each chapter, focusing on the major ideas presented.
Westerhoff opens his discussion on spiritual formation by in Chapter One with an exploration of the spiritual life. Citing the two greatest commandments from Mark 12:30-31, Westerhoff asserts that the strength of one’s moral life depends entirely on the strength of his spiritual life, for true love towards a neighbor can only come from a heart that knows how to truly love God (1). Westerhoff then discusses the relationship men can have with God, but first points out his theory that the only God people are able to experience is the God they are able to image (4). Perhaps the best image of God one could settle on is that of a Friend—One whom a person can find pleasurable and useful (6) and with Whom he is not afraid to argue (7). With regards to beginning the spiritual life, Westerhoff suggests that a person comes into a relationship with God through either a pietistic (immediate) or mystic (slow) way (10). With regards to maintaining the spiritual life, Westerhoff references the fruit of the spirit and how important it is to display each of the fruits evenly in order to avoid distortion or character through overemphasis of one single fruit.
In Chapter Two, Westerhoff delves into the aspects of preaching and teaching and how one’s spiritual life affects the effectiveness of each. He opens by suggesting that preaching must change to match today’s thought, to make Christianity meaningful for people today (17). To makes these changes, he suggests that the most important changes will come in what the preachers emphasize (19). Literature and art are, according to Westerhoff in 1992, some of the popular means of expression today. He suggests that today’s generations seek to experience God rather than just know Him. People desire the spiritual over the academic, the imaginative over reasonable, the subjective over the objective. People desire to dwell with Scriptural principles more than they want to dig into them (25). And thus, a preacher needs to adapt his methodology to fit these growing trends by learning to engage the imagination (26).
In Chapter Three, Westerhoff reverts back to his topic in Chapter One—to discuss how preachers can strengthen their own relationship with God so as to teach others to do the same (29). Such an ability holds four requirements: to embrace suffering (30), to take advantage of silence and solitude (33), to give attention to restlessness (35), and to exemplify the image of Christ (37). Throughout this discussion, Westerhoff introduces the theme of prayer, a theme that plays an important role as much through the remainder of the book as in the lives of spiritual leaders.
After focusing on the spirituality of the preachers and teachers in Chapter Three, Westerhoff then turns to the spirituality of their preaching and teaching in Chapter Four (41). He begins by suggesting that in both the teaching and learning of spirituality, the learner searches (42), the teacher lives as a source of learning (44) and, as a result, the truth inevitably breaks in (50). Most importantly, he also reveals that teachers themselves need to not just be teaching, but must be searching as well in a constant, personal struggle towards their own learning (44).
In Chapter Five, Westerhoff delves into the more psychological aspects of spirituality, commenting that prayer specifically is much more than a simple means to aiding one’s relationship with God: prayer is also the manifestation of that relationship (53).
In the first half of this chapter, Westerhoff discusses the various schools of spirituality and then compares these schools to distinct human personalities and how these personalities affect one’s approach to prayer. He mentions specifically eight different personality traits: introverted and extroverted, sensate and intuitive (60), thinking and feeling, judgmental and perceptive (61).
In his final chapter, Westerhoff leaves behind the theoretical discussions on spirituality and prayer or learning and personality, and instead discusses the very practical methods of living spiritually (53). One good way to look at this is how one can develop his own devotional and prayer life. Westerhoff says first that a person needs to decide on the time and place for his devotional or prayer life (66). He compares this development to intimate lovemaking and therefore suggests that the best time and place is that which is free from all distractions(67). He then emphasizes both the preparation and presence required in this development (68). Journaling is the next step Westerhoff proposes, and is perhaps the most practical of all his suggestions. The reason for this is that if one does not record what he learns, he very quickly will forget the lessons, insights and experiences and will therefore have nothing to which he can revert when struggles and trials arise. Westerhoff also suggests that one supplement his personal study with spiritual friends (69) who can offer help and support throughout the developmental process (which is lifelong anyway). Westerhoff continues by suggesting that as one studies the biblical text, he ought also pray that same text back to God. Such an exercise involves reading, meditation, prayer and contemplation (72-74).
Westerhoff concludes his book by reminding his audience and readers that “human beings” are the house of God. According to Westerhoff’s Episcopalian beliefs, the search for spirituality is a search for God, and as one conducts this search, he will eventually realize that God already resides within him and that God has been there all along (76).
Having taken a proper look at Spiritual Life as a whole, this paper will now turn to a brief evaluation of some of the major ideas addresses in the book. The following will discuss specifically Westerhoff’s views on salvation and on the practicality of both devotions and prayer.
First, as coming from an Anglo-Catholic Episcopalian background, Westerhoff holds some very interesting, very non-Biblical soteriological views. He believes that he achieved union with God through a prolonged process of spiritual exercises (10), a process which he believes could potentially end at any moment (11). He also believes that every human being is naturally the house of God, and that it takes but an effort of searching to find that God is already there, living inside each and every person (76). By bookending Spiritual Life with his idea of salvation, Westerhoff downplays the change that comes with conversion, for instead of a person becoming a child of God (I John 3:1-2), an heir with Christ (Romans 8:16-17) and a new creation (II Corinthians 5:17), the person after salvation simply comes to realize that he has become what he has always been (76). Besides this, Westerhoff seems to deny the various conditions required for those whom the Members of the Godhead can indwell (Galatians 2:20; 4:19; Ephesians 4:24; Colossians 1:26-27; I John 4:12). He also seems to ignore the simple, clear teaching of Scripture that salvation comes to those who confess the Lord Jesus and believe that God has raised Him from the dead (Romans 10:9-10).
Second, Westerhoff’s deals with the practicality of Bible study in its building a solid spiritual life. Of course, since Bible knowledge would be a natural prerequisite for the members of the audience to whom he is writing, Bible study in general is not Westerhoff’s main focus. As he notes in Chapter 2, the spiritual preacher or teacher, leader or layperson who has biblical knowledge needs to exercise and build up his spiritual reading, his imagination, his subjectivity instead of his academic reading, his reason or his objectivity (24). It then follows that in Chapter 6 Westerhoff emphasizes that “study is necessary but not sufficient” (70.). What more is needed is meditation (72), prayer (73) and contemplation (74).
Finally, Westerhoff’s dealings with the practicality of prayer have proven to be thoroughly useful for a Christian’s walk. Westerhoff comments in his introduction, “Prayer is paying attention” (x), and he certainly follows up this statement throughout his book with other substantial insights on the issue. For example, he describes prayer as an awareness that God moves towards us as we open ourselves to Him (8), as James 4:8 also affirms. He writes later that in prayer, we are basically giving God permission to do in our lives what He desires to do (35), implementing the principles of Psalm 37:4 and Christ’s example in Luke 22:42. Westerhoff also writes on the importance of treating prayer not as an escape from the problems of life, but as a time to be spiritually engaged and changed (36).
The spiritual insights of Spiritual Life are both practical and thought-provoking, though the author’s theology is something to be questioned. As one reads Westerhoff, he would be wise to read critically, being careful to neither condemn the good nor unquestioningly accept the bad.
Westerhoff, John H. Spiritual Life: The Foundation for Preaching and Teaching. Louisville, Ky: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994.
© E.T. 2010