THINKING HISTORICALLY ABOUT VOCATION

Wheaton College undergraduates attend chapel services three times a week during the academic year.  Typically, the entire student body meets together in our beautiful Edman Chapel, but once each term students gather in smaller groups within their home departments–biology majors with biology majors, philosophy majors with philosophy majors, etc.  Today was the appointed day for departmental chapels, and it was my privilege to be the featured speaker in the chapel service hosted by the Department of History.

The title of my talk to our majors was “Thinking Historically About Vocation.”  At the beginning of the year my History Department colleagues and I decided that we needed to do a better job of helping our students think about life after graduation and the range of career paths they might follow.  Toward that end, we plan to bring back a number of History alums to campus for a series of panel discussions about possible vocational paths.

Before we launch that initiative, however, I thought it was important to help our students think about vocation at a more foundational level.  Before asking “What is my specific vocation or calling in life?” I want them to ask, “How, as a Christian, ought I to understand the concept of calling?”

In preparing my remarks, I relied heavily on a work that I would recommend to anyone wanting to think Christianly and historically about vocation.   The book is Callings: Twenty Centuries of Christian Wisdom on Vocation, edited by the late William C. Placher.  Placher was a long-time philosopher and theologian at Wabash College, and Callings is an an anthology of fifty-seven selections from prominent Christian thinkers of the past two millennia from the first-century bishop Ignatius of Antioch to the twentieth-century Swiss theologian Karl Barth.

Placher

In her marvelous little book The Spiritual Practice of Remembering, Christian historian Margaret Bendroth observes that most modern-day Christians are “stranded in the present.” Dismissing what the Apostles’ Creed refers to as “the communion of saints”–the fellowship of believers across the ages–we cut ourselves off from the hard-won insight of believers across the centuries and rely instead on the trendy and popular musings of the moment.

Callings assaults such arrogance head on. (And it is a form of arrogance, if we’re honest about it; C. S. Lewis called it “chronological snobbery.”) As we read systematically through the selections, we join a conversation that began long before we came on the scene and will continue long after we are gone.  In doing so, we discover that intelligent, devout believers have differed dramatically over the centuries about a concept we tend to take for granted.

Placher identifies four broad periods in history in which “calling” has had different meanings.  The first was the Early Church Period, say 100-500 A.D.  During these years it was far from easy to be a Christian.  Most Christians were in the minority in their communities.  It was common for followers of Jesus to come to faith as adults, and their decision to profess faith often came at great personal cost, sometimes meaning a break with family, sometimes leading to persecution.  During this period, when individuals wrestled with calling, they were confronting the basic question of whether to profess faith and, if they did so, how open to be in their declaration.  One of my favorites selections from this period is an excerpt from Augustine’s Confessions, written around the close of the fourth century.

During the Middle Ages, 500-1500, Christian writing on calling changed significantly.  In those areas around the world where Christians were to be found, they were usually in the majority in their communities.  Christianity was pretty much the dominant religion wherever it existed at all.  Most Christians lived under the authority of the Church and were surrounded by other believers.  As a result, when Christian writers reflected on the concept of calling, they rarely had in mind the question of whether to become a Christian.  They were much more preoccupied with the question, “What kind of Christian should I be?” Specifically, now the decision at the heart of finding one’s calling was whether to pursue a “religious” life.  During these centuries, to have a calling meant to serve in the priesthood or a monastic order, becoming a priest, monk, or nun.  Not coincidentally, individuals who wrote on calling tended to belong to monastic orders themselves, such as the Italian Dominican Thomas Aquinas or the German monk Thomas a’ Kempis.

As Placher notes, it’s unlikely that either of these periods offers a perspective on calling that feels right to us.  If you’re like me, when you think about calling you’re probably not thinking about whether God might be leading you to join a monastic order, as would have been the case during the Middle Ages.  At the same time, you probably do have in mind something more specific than the general call to faith in Jesus as Lord, as calling was typically understood during the Early Church Period.  Don’t we typically think of something between these extremes–a general sense that God is summoning us to do a certain something with our lives, and that doing that something will give our lives greater meaning, purpose, and fulfillment?

This understanding of calling dates to the third period that Placher identifies, namely the four a half centuries or so during and after the Protestant Reformation, say from the early 1500s to the late 1800s.  Two crucial things were happening during these years that transformed thinking about calling.  First, early reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin began to push back against the Catholic teaching that only priests, monks, and nuns were pursuing a calling from God.  Any task undertaken as unto the Lord is “reckoned very precious in God’s sight,” Calvin wrote in his Institutes of the Christian Religion.

Second, much of the western world was undergoing a period of increasing commercialization and economic sophistication that historians call the Market Revolution.  When Calvin wrote in the 1530s, he still inhabited a world of severely limited options.  He could take for granted that almost all females would labor as wives and mothers, while almost all males would inherit the occupations of their fathers.  The son of a peasant farmer would be a peasant farmer; the son of a craftsman would be a craftsman.  In contrast to Christian writers in earlier centuries, both Calvin and Luther tended to equate “calling” with “occupation.”  Neither, however, offered advice to Christians about how to figure out the occupation to which God was calling them, because neither really expected their readers to have much choice in the matter.  Their goal was to teach Christians that, whatever kind of work they had inherited as their lot, they could quite literally think of it as a calling fraught with religious significance.

Over time, thanks in large part to the economic changes swirling around them, the heirs of Luther and Calvin began to modify or elaborate on their teaching.  They began to distinguish between “general calling” (the calling to faith in Christ) and “particular calling,” the calling to a specific walk of life or job.  More significant, they began to offer advice for discerning the latter.  English Puritans like William Perkins (writing at the close of the sixteenth century) and Richard Baxter (writing in the latter half of the seventeenth century) pinpointed a series of criteria for identifying an appropriate “particular” calling.  Any line of work we would pursue, they taught,  a) must be something we can practice with integrity and conformity to Biblical principles;  b) should in some way serve the common good; c) should express the desires of our heart; and d) should mesh with our particular abilities or skill set.  These criteria would not point the Christian to one and only one possible line of work, but they would be helpful in narrowing down the range of acceptable particular callings.

The fourth and final period that Placher identifies is what he calls the “Post-Christian” era of the late-nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  In this period it has no longer been a given that Christians are in the majority in the communities where they reside.  (In this sense our world resembles the Early Church Period.)   During these years a number of Christian writers have consciously tried to return the focus of “calling” to the divine summons to live a life of obedience to Christ and to take the focus away from paid work.  A key writer in this vein is the late Karl Barth, whose writing on the topic is one of my favorites.  Barth argued that the early Reformers were right in insisting that the Catholic definition of calling during the Middle Ages was far too narrow.  In seeking to redress this, however, they committed their own error by equating the concept of calling so exclusively with work.  According to Barth, the divine calling applies to the totality of our existence, cutting diagonally across every dimension of our lives.

The selections in Callings will not lead you to simple answers about the concept of Christian vocation.  Like any fruitful conversation with the past, however, it will help you to discern your own position more precisely and think about it more perceptively.  As Placher put it,

The past does not always have the right answers, but its answers are often at least different from those of the present, and the differences cause us to question our own previously unexamined assumptions. . . . After traveling in other countries, we come back to our own with new questions. But the past too is a different country, and, voyaging in it, we gain richer perspectives on our own time.

2 responses to “THINKING HISTORICALLY ABOUT VOCATION

  1. Pingback: Christian Vocation Through the Centuries

  2. Sir, I believe continuing to follow your blog will make me materially poorer (due to the books I will end up buying) and spiritually and intellectually richer. I suppose that is a good “calling” for my money. 🙂

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