Vocation: The Crux of the Matter

But yield who will to their separation,
My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight.
Only where love and need are one,
And the work is play for mortal stakes,
Is the deed ever really done
For Heaven and the future's sakes.

Concluding Stanza from "Two Tramps in Mud Time," by Robert Frost


[1] The idea that we human beings are not just unusually sentient blobs of self-serving protoplasm, but that we have a calling to be something or do something, has been around for a long time.  In fact, an argument can be made that the notion of vocation is the central idea in 3,000 years of Judeo-Christian culture.  Consider for a moment:

• The foundational stories of faithfulness, and lapses from it, in the scriptures (e.g., Abraham, Jacob renamed Israel, Jesus, the disciples…)
• The saturation of our literary tradition by figures who are called to some great quest, and either remain faithful to it or waver, for better or for worse: Odysseus, Aeneas, Parsifal, Quixote, Bunyan's Pilgrim, Captain Ahab; Ruth, Mary, Antigone, Dido, Lady Macbeth.
• The agendas of empires, nations, states, social movements, and corporations-ranging from "manifest destiny" to "I have a dream."


[2] But the history of the idea of vocation is not without contradictions.  To risk a pun so early on:  "vocation" is hardly "uni-vocal."  Like much else in Western thought, it tends to manifest itself not so much as a unified concept, but as an uneasy tension between spheres that would appear to be mutually exclusive:  the Holy and the Secular.  When the first sphere, the purely "holy," is dominant, there is a narrowing of the semantic field and only Priests-on-Mountaintops are thought to have vocations.  This is the sense the word "vocation" had when Martin Luther encountered it in the first half of the 16th century in Europe.  Indeed, it is the meaning one still finds listed first when one looks up the word in the Oxford English Dictionary:  "Vocation:  The action on the part of God of calling a person to exercise some special function, especially of a spiritual nature, or to fill a certain position, divine influence or guidance toward a definite (esp. religious) career; the fact of being so called or directed towards a special work in life; natural tendency to, or fitness for, such work."  But if this is what vocation means, then fewer and fewer people would appear to be hearing it nowadays, especially in North America.

[3] Most people would say that the second sphere, the "secular," has become dominant in our post-Christian culture.  In this sphere, the vocabulary of "vocation" tends to be emptied of all transcendental content, even though its form may remain deceptively intact. This process-the process of emptying our vocations of transcendental content-has been going on in Western culture for at least the last 200 years.  As a result, the power of the concept of vocation has been widely diminished, indeed, quite literally flattened out.  A recent commentator puts it this way:  "Our problem today is not so much the sacralization of vocation for a few, but its secularization for all.  Vocation usually means, quite simply, one's job.  We speak of vocational counseling, vocational schools, or vocational rehabilitation, without conscious reference to the vertical dimension which informed Luther's understanding of the Christian's calling."

[4] Western thought about vocation can be plotted almost as a line graph, with "sacralization" as the vertical ("y") axis and "secularization" as the horizontal ("x") axis.  If you think about this in a literally spatial form, you can almost visualize it.  In assessing the meaning of our lives, most people don't really think "vertically" any more, but rather "horizontally."  The attempt to see our lives sub specie aeternitatis, from the perspective of eternity, as philosophers used to say, has yielded to thinking of ourselves under the rubric of the myth of infinite progress. 

[5] Despite all this evident "secularization," it seems clear that for the past 20 years or so, the concept of "vocation" has been enjoying increasing visibility in the American academy, and to some degree, in popular culture.  Apparently, it is seen as a concept that can help people and cultures discern and sustain meaning. A few benchmarks:

• Robert Bellah et al., Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (1985)

"…calling not only links a person to his or her fellow workers.  A calling links a person to the larger community, a whole in which the calling of each is a contribution to the good of all."

"…calling is a critical link between the individual and the public world."

"Vocation is a moral relationship between people, not just a source of material or psychic rewards."

• Studs Terkel, Working

"…working is about a search for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for a Sunday sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying."

[6] In short, "vocation" is being hailed as an antidote for what Robert Putnam describes in his 2000 book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.  Or as a way out of the anomie and desperation of everyday life described by Po Branson in his 2002 book, What Should I Do with My Life, a #1 New York Times bestseller.

[7] But is this really an authentic revival of the full power of the concept of vocation, or just another appropriation of it by the dominant secular culture?  It seems to me that "vocation" is not just about figuring out how to live together like some kind of motivated sports team, or about having some psychological sense of meaning in my personal life-as useful as those things might be. To understand vocation chiefly as personal fulfillment or even as renewing the unity of community is to massively impoverish the term and its significance for us.  I would suggest that vocation cannot be adequately understood and appreciated apart from serious theological reflection-that is, engagement with one's foundational relationship to God.

[8] For me, here's where things get interesting-and complicated.  As suggested earlier, Roman Catholicism of the late Middle Ages propounded a specific, highly structured and mediated teaching of how everyday persons might have access to this foundational relationship to and with God.  You're all familiar with some of its abuses related to that conception of vocation, such as the sale of indulgences, the denigration of life in this world, the selective interpretation of Holy Scripture.  Luther, of course, had some well-known problems with all of that, and his persistence in naming those problems eventually got him excommunicated and outlawed.  But what, exactly, was Luther's contribution to the re-formation-the Reformation-of the concept of vocation?  In short, it was revolutionary.  It ennobled the lives and work of everyday people in ways that had not been imaginable.  Some excerpts from his writings will give a flavor of how radical his thought was on this score.  (For these and other excerpts, and a celebration of the Lutheran concept of vocation, see Listen! God Is Calling!: Luther Speaks of Vocation, Faith, and Work by D. Michael Bennethum, published by Augsburg Fortress.)

[9] It is a pure invention that pope, bishop, priests, and monks are called the spiritual estate while princes, lords, artisans, and farmers are called the temporal estate.  This is indeed a piece of deceit and hypocrisy.   …all Christians are truly of the spiritual estate, and there is no difference among them except that of office….  We are all consecrated priests through baptism..  (To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation," LW 44:127)

[10] See to it first of all that you believe in Christ and are baptized.  Afterward, see to your vocation.  I am called to be a preacher.  Now when I preach I perform a holy work that is pleasing to God.  If you are a father or mother, believe in Jesus Christ and so you will be a holy father or mother.  Pay attention to the early years of your children, let them pray, and discipline and spank them.  Oversee the running of the household and the preparation of meals.  These things are none other than holy works to which you have been called.  That means they are your holy life and are a part of God's Word and your vocation.  (Sermon from 1534, WA 37: 480)

[11] Every person surely has a calling.  While attending to it he serves God.  A king serves God when he is at pains to look after and govern his people.  So do the mother of a household when she tends her baby, the father of a household when he gains a livelihood by working, and pupil when he applies himself diligently to his studies….  Therefore it is a great wisdom when a human being does what God commands and earnestly devotes himself to his vocation….  (Lectures on Genesis 17:9, LW 3:128)

[12] If you are a manual laborer, you find that the Bible has been put into your workshop, into your hand, into your heart.  It teaches and preaches how you should treat your neighbor.  Just look at your tools-at your needle or thimble, your beer barrel, your goods, your scales or yardsticks or measure-and you will read this statement inscribed on them.  Everywhere you look, it stares at you.  Nothing that you handle every day is so tiny that it does not continually tell you this, if you will only listen.  Indeed, there is no shortage of preaching.  You have so many preachers as you have transactions, goods, tools, and other equipment in your home and house.  All this is continually crying out to you:  "Friend, use me in your relations with your neighbor just as you would want your neighbor to use his property in his relations with you."  (LW 21:237)

[13] God gives us grace not so that we can walk all over it as the world does, but because God takes an interest in all that we do to our neighbors, good and bad, as though we were doing it to God.  If only everyone would regard their service to their neighbors as service to God, the whole world would be filled with worshipful service ("Gottesdienst").  A servant in the stable, a maid in the kitchen, a child in school-these are merely God's workers and God's servants, if they with diligence do what their father and mother, or the lord and lady of the household gives them to do.  Thus would every house be filled with "Gottesdienst," indeed every house would be a true church in which nothing other than pure "Gottesdienst" was practiced.  (Buchawald et al, Luthers Werke fuer das Christliche Haus, 5:463)

[14] I know of no other theologian in history who so boldly attached holiness to such activities as spanking children, doing your homework, keeping a job, mending clothes, and yes, making beer.  Luther's boldness in describing these activities as genuine vocations, rather than as low-level maintenance occupations, was undergirded by his conviction that when we truly hear the call of God, we will be led by our overflowing gratitude to love and serve our neighbor.  In short, if we genuinely embrace our connection with the "vertical" dimension of vocation, ensured by the persistent summons of God to be in relationship with God, we will be inevitably led to a transformed and sanctified understanding of our "horizontal" work in the world.

[15] Some critics of Luther's teachings on vocation have suggested that they can lead to an excessively passive posture, an overemphasis on "doing one's duty" and "bearing one's cross" as opposed to working to change one's own station in life, or to change social conditions that are oppressive to our neighbor.  Others have suggested that in extending the sense of the sacred so broadly to everyday activities, Luther also opened the door to the demystification of the holy.  According to this view, his teachings on vocation contained the very seed of secularization that has so strikingly impoverished the concept of vocation in the modern world.  There is in my view some validity to these criticisms.

[16] For now, let us recall that Luther's own prayerful boldness as a reformer hardly suggests passivity and quietism.

[17] Let us end by looking more closely at the word itself.  The Latin word vocatio, along with its Greek version klesis and its Hebrew equivalent qara' all center on the action not only of speaking, but of naming, summoning, indeed, calling into being. We know from the Biblical narrative that God speaks not in the abstract or into the unresponsive void, but to a particular purposive relationship that is brought into being by God's very naming.  God IS Word, and that Word, whether we always hear it or not, is addressed to us; it always summons us.  In a sense, we need to understand God's summoning of us in the flesh AS God's "incarnate word" to us.1

[18] Sometimes we experience vocation as convocation, as when we are called together in assembly to share our words together in academic discourse, or in worship.

[19] Sometimes we experience vocation as evocation, as when we are called out to share gifts of which we ourselves may not even be aware, or to form a special community, an ekklesia or church.

[20] Sometimes we experience vocation as provocation, as when our certainties are challenged, or when we challenge the certainties of others.

[21] Sometimes we experience vocation as revocation, as when we come to see that we need to call back things we have said or done, to repent.

[22] Sometimes we experience vocation as advocacy, when we speak for others, or when we experience the gift of Christ's advocacy for us.

[23] But always, we should remember that without invocation, without inviting the Word of God into our lives, our attempts to discern our own vocation will always echo back to us our own sound and fury, signifying nothing.

[24] Those who hear God's summons to their own full and free being IN the need of the world  are truly blessed.  They live at the intersection of the vertical and the horizontal.  They experience the mystery of the cross.  And that…is the crux of the matter.

[25] In re-presencing Itself by evoking the World, by literally calling the world out into existence, the Word becomes audible.  It creates its own listeners, and gives them the freedom to hear its truth-or to register it as absurd noise.  The Word not only sits Out There somewhere, but it enters into world history, and into the history of every creature in the world. (For those familiar with early Greek thought, it may be helpful to recall an analogous interaction of Logos-the Word-with Chaos to produce Cosmos, which is differentiated, structured, and therefore intelligible). 

[26] From this perspective, the essential unity of the Word as Creator, the Incarnate Word as Redeemer, and the Inspiring Word as motivator and connector, becomes apparent.  The three persons of the Christian God are three ways of helping us hear the presence of God as Vocation.  This Word is active, creative, summoning us to be in profound relationship with It, and with the Cosmos It has created.  It is, in a Word, Love.

[27] In other words, vocation is God's free and loving summons to us to be in free and loving relationship with God in the fulfillment of God's creation.

End Notes

1  *The theology of vocation can be unfolded from the first eighteen verses of the Gospel according to John, which I commend to your study and reflection. In their focus on the "Word," these verses evoke the activities of saying, speaking, and summoning that also saturate the opening of the book of Genesis.
© July 2004
Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 4, Issue 7