Vocation: Discerning Our Callings in Life

Vocation: Discerning Our Callings in Life

by Douglas J. Schuurman

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The Protestant doctrine of vocation has had a profound influence on American culture, but in recent years central tenets of this doctrine have come under assault. Vocation: Discerning Our Callings in Life explores current responses to the classic view of vocation and offers a revised statement and application of this doctrine for contemporary NorthSee more details below


The Protestant doctrine of vocation has had a profound influence on American culture, but in recent years central tenets of this doctrine have come under assault. Vocation: Discerning Our Callings in Life explores current responses to the classic view of vocation and offers a revised statement and application of this doctrine for contemporary North American Christians.

According to Douglas Schuurman, many Christians today find it both strange and difficult to interpret their social, economic, political, and cultural lives as responses to God's calling. To renew this biblical perspective, Schuurman argues, Christians must recover the language, meaning, and reality of life as vocation, and his book helps do just that. Developed in dialogue with audiences as diverse as college students, industrial workers, business leaders, church leaders, and professional theologians and ethicists, the book examines the theological and ethical dimensions of vocation as these have been understood historically and in relation to our modern social setting.

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Discerning Our Callings in Life
By Douglas J. Schuurman

William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company

Copyright © 2004 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
All right reserved.

Chapter One

Vocation under Assault: Can It Be Salvaged?

The most common understanding of vocation today is the secularized one where vocation refers to one's paid work. Sometimes vocation refers to any form of paid work; sometimes it refers to particular forms of paid work, those forms that involve public service or higher pay or status. We speak of vocational training, vocational schools, vocational counseling, choosing a vocation. Here "vocation" and "vocational" are synonymous with "career" and "technical." The secular use also rarely, if ever, includes the spheres of family, citizenship, and friendship. Identifying activities outside of paid work as "avocations" only illustrates the more restrictive modern usage. Both the religious aspects of vocation and its reference to relational spheres in addition to paid work, central to classic Protestant vocation, have been largely lost.

When "vocation" does have religious connotations it usually refers to church-related occupations and activities. In a Catholic context, vocation means becoming a priest. When I told a young monk at St. John's Abbey that I was working on the Protestant idea of vocation, he replied that he knew a group of Protestants who had formed an intentional Christian community in the Twin Cities, imitating to a degree the monastic vocation. Since Vatican II Roman Catholicism has taught that marriage and family, labor, culture, and temporal affairs have dignity and participate in God's unfolding work of creation and redemption - a theme central to Protestant vocation. But in much official and most popular Catholic usage, the terms "vocation" and "calling" designate church-related activities or heroic, extraordinary forms of service.

Many Protestants use "vocation" and "calling" in a similar way. When they teach Sunday school, lead prayer and Bible study meetings, evangelize, and serve on church committees, they are fulfilling their callings. Many evangelicals speak of "full-time" and "part-time" service. Those who have a full-time church-related paid job are in full-time service to the Lord; those who work a "regular" job and volunteer much of their time to church activities are serving the Lord part time - that is, in their church activities.

Interestingly, the term "calling," synonymous with "vocation" for much of the Protestant tradition, today seems less secularized and restricted to paid work than the term "vocation." There is no parallel, for example, where the term "calling" functions as an equivalent to "vocation" in vocational schools, vocational counseling, etc. President George W. Bush recently said that the campaign of eradicating terrorism around the globe is "our calling." The title of a recent Newsweek article asks, "Washington is Calling. Will Anyone Answer?" Here "calling" is secularized, but is more expansive than paid work and refers to a special task assigned by "destiny" or "Washington." Within the realm of paid work, "vocation" functions as a secular term for paid work in the broader society, but "calling" typically refers only to church-related occupations. Since, within this more restricted usage, "calling" retains religious meaning, it is less often used in a thoroughly secularized way. In its secularized form, "calling" often refers to what one loves to do, whether for pay or not. If a person loves her or his job, it is said that this job is a calling. It refers to a person's passion. "Her job may be mechanical engineering, but golf is her calling." Or, "His job may be social work, but cooking is his calling." Because one's core passions and loves are central to religion, this usage has religious connotations even when applied to secular domains of life. Thus "vocation," more so than "calling," is restricted to paid work and secularized in popular usage (outside the Catholic church).

These popular uses of "vocation" and "calling" both reflect and contribute to the fact that many Christians fail to see most of their lives in terms of vocation. Many also assume that "hearing" God's call is an extraordinary, miraculous event, and so fail to discern God's callings in their lives. The vast majority of my Christian students are perplexed when I suggest that their work as students, relationships with friends and family, and extracurricular activities are among their callings. They never heard God speaking from a burning bush, or from the heavenly courtroom, resonant with echoes of cherubim. God does sometimes call in such extraordinary ways, but for the vast majority of Christians God's callings are discerned quietly, when the heart of faith joins opportunities and gifts with the needs of others.

Emil Brunner observes that there is no more in common between the original meaning of vocation and contemporary usage than the term itself. Calling has been degraded into "something quite trivial" having been stripped of "its daring and liberating religious meaning." He asks whether Christians should renounce the term altogether. He responds,

[I]t is a conception which in its Scriptural sense is so full of force and so pregnant in meaning, it gathers up so clearly the final meaning of God's acts of grace - the Calling - and the concrete character of the Divine Command in view of the world in which man has to act, that to renounce this expression would mean losing a central part of the Christian message. We must not throw it away, but we must regain its original meaning.

If we are to recover the power of vocation to infuse all of life with religious meaning, and extend its range into all relational fields, then we must return to the expansive, religiously rich understanding of vocation in the Bible and the Reformation.

The development of the doctrine of vocation was a distinctive and influential feature of the Lutheran and Reformed wings of the Protestant Reformation. According to this doctrine all relational spheres - domestic, economic, political, cultural - are religiously and morally meaningful as divinely given avenues through which persons respond obediently to the call of God to serve their neighbor in love. Human beings participate in God's provident care for creation through their activities as parents, artisans, farmers, princes, and preachers. Trust in Christ issues forth in gratitude that motivates Christians to see themselves as participants in God's providence through their callings. The particular shape action was to take within the "offices" of parent, spouse, judge, lawyer, or farmer was to a significant degree determined by intelligent discernment of obligations germane to the relevant context. "Faith active in love through one's callings" became the benchmark of Reformation ethics. This vision of life as vocation, and the tensions embedded within it, has deep roots in the Judeo-Christian heritage, and has had a profound influence upon the modern West.

Vocation in Three Themes

1. All Aspects of Life Are Holy

Vocation infuses all mundane activities - domestic, economic, political, educational, and cultural - with a religious significance the Catholic Church of Luther's day restricted to monastic or ecclesial activities. As Luther saw it, the labors of the cobbler and the preacher are equally holy and equally valued by God if undertaken in faith. Luther was more inclined to equalize all occupations than was Calvin, but both reformers insisted that all legitimate social roles were holy if undertaken in faith. The term "vocation" derives from the Latin vocare (and its Greek equivalent kalein) meaning "to call." This call sanctifies all of life, inviting Christians to offer every aspect of life as their divine worship. By identifying mundane roles as vocations or callings, the reformers rejected the church/world dichotomy prevalent in their day; indeed, they saw an inherent dignity in everyday activities. For Calvin and Luther, vital service to God takes place not just in church or religious orders, but in more mundane callings as well.

2. Duties Are to Be Governed by God's Will

The duties of one's station in life are "expressions" or "specifications" of the will of God. As Luther put it,

Picture before you the humblest state. Are you a husband, and you think you have not enough to do in that sphere ...? Again: Are you a son or daughter, and do you think you have not enough work with yourself, to continue chaste, pure, and temperate during your youth, obey your parents, and offend no one by word or deed? ... See, as no one is without some commission and calling, so no one is without some kind of work.... [S]erve God and keep his commandments; then ... all time will be too short, all places too cramped, all resources of help too weak.

Theologically, the doctrines of providence and incarnation come into play here. Fulfilling a station's lawful duties is a participation in God's provident ways, and recipients of services are Christ incarnate within human need. Thus Luther says that God milks the cows through the milkmaids, and he encourages fathers to imagine they are holding the baby Jesus in their hands when they change their infant's dirty diapers.

Though for the most part Luther and Calvin stress concord between God's will and a station's duties, they also recognize conflict between them. They condemn thievery and pimping, for example, on the ground that they are contrary to the law of God. Even within occupations deemed legitimate, some practices are prohibited as violations of God's law or the common good. Luther does not condemn being a merchant, but he does condemn monopolies, taking advantage of another's vulnerability, and excessive profiteering. Though Luther and Calvin are hardly blind optimists about corruption in society, they also recognize God's provident, ordering care in social institutions.

3. Officials Are God's Representatives

The doctrine of vocation confers theological legitimacy upon the authority of persons occupying positions of power within the social order. Parents, princes, employers, teachers, pastors, and judges represent in their offices not themselves, but God. For Luther, God speaks through ministers, parents, and other superiors, "lest we be carried about by every wind of doctrine":

Let children listen to their parents, let the citizens listen to the magistrate, let the Christian listen to the elder and the ministers of the Word, let the pupil listen to the teacher.... [I]f the Word is present, I have sure consolation: whether I am a father, mother, or son, I hear the word and I know what I ought to believe and do, for God speaks to me in that very station of life in which I happen to live.

Though Luther stresses it more than Calvin does, both reformers emphasize that God ordains offices and appoints individuals to exercise divine governance through them. Persons subject to authority are to see God's will in the expectations of authorities, and so obey God by obeying them. Though relativized by the supreme authority of the Word of God, this structuring of obligations and freedoms in terms of one's place amid varied authorities is deeply bound up with the early reformers' idea of calling.

Modern Challenges to Vocation

These themes are central to Protestant vocation. With modifications, they persist into mid-twentieth century ethics of Bonhoeffer, Brunner, and Barth. But in modern times all three themes have come under attack.

One source of the attack is the forces of secularism and capitalism, which assault the religious significance vocation confers upon everyday life. Can a vital sense of God's call amid mundane activities be sustained in a society that systematically privatizes religion in splendid isolation from the secular social orders? Can life be experienced as a response to divine calling when our economic system stresses the exchange value of work and seems to dominate other contexts such as family, politics, and education? Is it yet possible to perceive God's call in and through labor made repetitive, boring, competitive, and inhuman by the demands of technology or industry, or when that labor serves (often without or against our wills) to exacerbate the poverty of others?

Some sociologists fear that even the family, once thought to be a haven for religious meaning and value in the heartless world of industrial production and economic competition, may be an endangered species. Sociologist Arlie Hocschild warns of the way families are threatened in today's society: "For all the talk about the importance of children, the cultural climate has become subtly less hospitable to parents who put children first. This is not because parents love children less, but because a 'job culture' has expanded at the expense of a 'family culture.' ... Corporations have done little to accommodate the needs of working parents, and the government has done little to prod them." According to sociologist Robert Bellah, we are shifting more and more from a "child-centered" to an "adult-centered" family; an individual does not "belong" to a family, an individual "uses" the family. The pull of the market draws people away from their communities and extended families. As Saul Bellow put it, "Nobody truly occupies a station in life any more. There are displaced persons everywhere." The habit of perceiving everything in terms of economic advance and personal well-being has likewise displaced the religious centers of valuation and perception.

Part of the difficulty is that there are few, if any, institutional reminders of the sacred character of mundane life. As sociologist Robert Wuthnow notes, before World War II, Methodists operated 77 colleges and universities; Presbyterians, 71 colleges; Southern Baptists 53 colleges. Religious organizations controlled one-third of all endowments for higher education. In 1929, Protestant churches operated 15 percent of our nation's hospitals and 42 percent of its homes for the aged. The clear and obvious religious motivation for these endeavors helped people who worked within these church-related institutions to experience a meaningful sense of vocation. It also helped, symbolically, to sustain a general sense of the religious meaning of other worldly affairs for those who worked elsewhere.

Today a great many of these educational and welfare institutions have been taken over by the state or by private enterprise. The newer governing norms of making a profit, gaining prestige - and sometimes a vague sense of the "public good" - have usurped the explicitly religious tone of earlier times. Often all that remains of the earlier Christian structure is the name - St. Mary's Hospital - or the mottoes of places like Princeton, Yale, and Harvard.


Excerpted from VOCATION by Douglas J. Schuurman Copyright © 2004 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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