Since my first post on vocation, a number of friends, colleagues, and readers have jumped into the conversation, raised poignant questions, and even taken their linguistic sledgehammers to the whole concept. Jess Kast-Keat poignantly asked if vocation is only for the privileged: “I have the privilege of getting paid to do the work that I love to do because I have many different resources to tap into. But this is not the case for many people.” Deb Reinstra followed this up with a big "Ba Humbug" to vocation. As a college professor, she’s listened ad nauseum to self-serving, thinly constructed vocation talk. Then Jason Lief skillfully countered all this battering of vocation precisely from the perspective of those who are not privileged. So maybe our critique of vocation is also tied up in our privileged vantage point?!
I'll leave the conversation about privilege to Jess, and with that in mind, take up the question of the link between God’s call and our jobs. Does God call us to a particular job(s)? Is this calling to the job itself, to a set of relationships in the context of the job, or to a way of being in the context of our job? This also raises another related question: What is work? Have we conflated “work” with “job/occupation," or as one reader put it, to the place that gives me a paycheck?
Listen to how a thirty-one-year-old lawyer responded to questions about meaning and purpose in his work and how that relates to God's calling in his life:
My [faith] doesn’t inform my work as far as the actual tasks I perform. You know, I don’t think about writing a brief with my faith in mind. I do think [my faith] impacts how I interact with others whether they are my coworkers or opposing council. Not having a mean attitude towards them, or being able to talk about whatever issues with colleagues. My sense of purpose impacts how I carry myself in those situations. I don’t think of my job as something that I was called by God to do, it’s more just something that I do.
This lawyer (or, this person who happens to work as a lawyer) does not experience his occupation as part of his vocation; in fact, quite the opposite, God is not involved (in his estimation) in the actual content of his job. At best, his job is a means to another, more meaningful end. A fifty-three year old man said it this way:
Occupation has never been anything more for me than a means to live my life. I enjoy what I do for work, but it’s not what I choose to focus on.
If this is what our interviewees said—(and BTW, these are people of privilege, at least socio-economically)—what would some (or, in this post, two) of our theological forebears say?
Martin Luther: vocation is grounded in God’s ongoing creative work in all dimensions of our lives. We participate in God’s creative work as we die to sin and are raised to new life, and as we serve and love our neighbor in all stations of life, including marriage, family relationships, work (our jobs), etc. This is a much more nuanced understanding of vocation than what Marc Kolden, one of my former colleagues at Luther Seminary, calls “occupationalism.” He writes, “Defining vocation as occupation allows us to restrict it largely to self-serving actions (unless we are in some of the privileged service occupations, and even here the rewards are greatest for ourselves). Seeing vocation as the situation in history and society in which we find ourselves enlarges it almost beyond our strength. But responding to such a calling will surely allow God to sanctify us and empty us so that Christ will be all in all.”
Karl Barth: our vocation is multidimensional koinonia. Translated “fellowship” in English, koinonia refers to our union and communion with Christ, with each other, and our solidarity with the world. Vocation is fundamentally about our attachment to Christ and through Christ to one another. Personally and corporately, the vocation of the Christian is a life lived in light of this attachment. There is no pious separation from the world in this vocation. For we are attached to the world on the basis of our common creaturely status. Thus Christian vocation involves recognizing the needs of the world and responding with generosity, care, and compassion. It involves confession and witness. This confession is first and foremost a proclamation of God’s “yes” to humanity; it focuses on God as friend, healer, helper, and savior; and it must be contextualized, connecting to a particular people in a particular time and place.
Lest I lose readers with this longer-than-recommended blog post, let me try to weave together some tentative assertions about vocation in light of the latest research on vocation, the insights of my colleagues and readers, and the theologies of Martin Luther and Karl Barth. (My apologies for leaving out Kuyper!)
- Vocation derives from God’s work in our lives, personally and communally.
- God’s work is fundamentally relational, cruciform, creative (as in, creating new life); it is marked by solidarity and witness.
- Because we are attached to God through Christ, our work, too, is relational, cruciform, creative, marked by solidarity and witness, which reflect God’s love and care.
- God’s work of reconciliation leads to a radical acceptance of humanity; perhaps our work, too, is marked by basking in that acceptance of ourselves and others. (Hear justification in my language of “acceptance.”)
- Work, defined in this way, may be related to one’s job, but it is far more than that. Theologically work and occupation cannot be equated with one another.
- Vocation may be the work of love, an argument that I’ll take up at length in the next post.
- All this may break up the problem of privilege in our vocation conversation.