Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Mulling over Vocation - Prologue to a Theology of Calling

What might it mean to live an authentically human life? What might we mean by ‘authentic’ when asking such a question?[1] And what might it mean to ask such a question in the first place? Is there something which compels me or perhaps compels us to look beyond what appears as merely given by nature or society? Is there something within human beings why cries out to be realised, a potential groaning within, longing for expression or growth and development? Or is there a larger natural order that exerts a pressure upon us to either conform to a role within a complex ecology, either providing a space within which our capacities are to expand, or pushing down upon us to constrain some promethean disposition[2] and help us to learn to live within limits? If so, could we speak of a responsibility to such an order or is this a metaphor that indulges an unjustifiable anthropomorphism? Or is there something that or someone who transcends the finite order? What might it mean to respond to a ‘transcendent order’? This still seems too abstract and impersonal and simply a matter of choice as to one should follow it up. Can one speak of a human purpose? Can there be a compelling reason beyond mere utility if we bracket out the question of divine authority?

What is the extent of the demand—if we can call it that—that comes from nature? We can concede, at any given time, that there are structures and processes that appear unshakeable and unmoveable—we call them ‘laws’ (and we are barely conscious of the metaphor that presumes a divinely instituted order)—and we are then left to judge whether or not we must therefore accept our fate within an untameable world or whether we can exploit these same laws to change our vulnerability in relation to the supposed giveness of our condition.

What we call ‘ethics’ exists within this question of living within an alternately ambiguous and inflexible ‘nature’ as the lower level of normativity, within alternately agreed and contested judgements in society about human flourishing, as a slightly higher level; but then with an orientation to vocation—a larger vision of life to which we are compelled or summoned—that may suspend particular natural potentialities or social obligations; that is, there may be the need to endure suffering, to abstain from certain worthy goods such as ample food, shelter or perhaps sexual relations, or to leave behind social roles or relationships that might have seemed unproblematic.

The question of vocation—whether or not there is a call that reaches into the life of a human being (or a community) and reorients its shape and purpose—is not simply a luxury of the wealthy professional or even the relatively wealthy person of the so-called ‘developed world’ seeking out or simply honing their craft or trade. It is a question that can stir in the heart and mind of any person who, perhaps only for a moment, can lift her eyes from what is immediately in front of them—the plough, the chisel, the brush, the pen, the keyboard—and can envision a different world and her place within it. Perhaps it is no settled place but only a path marked out toward it, in hope that others will reap the benefit of her labours.

What might that different world look like? Perhaps it is simply a better version of what is right here, this time and place. Or is it the world turned upside down? If there is a call to a different world, does it send one back to the plough, the chisel, the brush, the pen, the keyboard, perhaps with a renewed vigor or resolve, to do what one was already doing, to cleave with fidelity to the history that brought this person to this place and this task; to love the community which in part sustains her and in part relies upon her? Or does this call to a different world turn her world upside down also. Must she ‘lay aside her nets’ and take on something so strange and unexpected as, say, a ‘fisher of men’, something with connection to previous life as tenuous as a metaphor.

This question of a different world and the possibility of vocation invites deeper questions about the nature of mundane and transcendent realities. Can we conceive of our quest as simply an unfolding of nature’s potentialities, simply riding the wave of some progressive dynamic inherent in the cosmos that carries humanity (as far as we know) at its leading edge? In such a world, we are not so much ‘called’ to a way of living as living according to the nature of things. The problem of evil and the naturalistic fallacy shadow us. But why this way of life and not another? In a universe that feels like it is not wholly determined and seems open to a variety of possibilities, what is it that could urge a particular shape to human life that is more than provincial and customary?

This is the question of vocation.

[1] So Greg Levoy, Callings: Finding and Following an Authentic Life (New York: Three Rivers Press, 1997); cf. Charles Taylor, The Ethics of Authenticity

[2] Cf. Gerald McKenny’s characterisation of the Baconian project in To Relieve the Human Condition: Bioethics, Technology, and the Body (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1997)