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)


Megan said...

In a chinese church, I think a lot about vocation, as chinese culture is quite resistant to the notion. I believe strongly in it, that vocation is one of the intentions for creation undermined by sin. But vocation is an unacheivable luxury for many in the world. Even for those who ARE able to pursue it, they may find many obstacles. What responsiblity do we have to help people to their vocation?

Ian Packer said...

Thanks, Megan. I don't think vocation is a luxury; we either have it or we don't. In the end, the question is more likely "Who is calling?" Are we 'called' by our community/society, family, or by God? Can we be pulled in different directions by different callings? In which case, which take precedence? In the end, a Christian answer is going to say that the gospel calls each human being to a particular form of human life, "conformed to the image of [God's] Son".

'Vocation', acording to Weber, was important in the rise of the modern world. But it needs to be rescued from what we've done to it, including the notion that it's a convenience for 'professionals' only. Neither should it be collpased into "a job I like".

Megan said...

I don't think it should be a luxury - but I think it often is perceived that way or legitimately is that in certain societies. Or people's "vocation" is allocated to them - so women for generations have been told their vocation is the home and family. For those in a struggle for society their :calling" may be that - survival - but under other circumstances their calling may have been allowed fuller fruition.

As for vocations/callings pulling in different directions, yes I think they do too, sometimes because certain callings are seasonal. But at other times because we do not enable the pursuit of several callings at once.

I think maybe God will call us to account for our stymieing of each other's callings.

I have to admit here as a woman in ministry, my frustration is bleeding out here ;)

Megan said...

struggle for society should read struggle for survival

Ian Packer said...

Among many things I'm looking at in my thesis are the questions of authority and purpose (arche and telos) in a post-teleological society, as well as the now-overarching paradigm of 'choice' in late capitalist society. Vocation speaks to an accountability beyond ourselves but perhaps also to a sphere of creative responsibility.

Regarding survival - I think we should avoid using 'calling' here - we should avoid too much metaphorical use of the word. When one is under the burdens of mere necessity, I don't think this really is a calling. Though one might say one's fellows may call one to contribute to their survival. I think we ought to keep the language 'thick' where possible.

Another distinction I think we should make is between calling (to a task) and particular socially-constructed/recognised 'offices'. Even when women have been denied particular offices, God sees fit to call them to tasks like teaching and 'gift' them to do so. Unfortunately, the opportunities for others to be blessed by such gifts is stymied by others. But the calling is not nullified.

But many live in frustration of not having opportunites to express what they sense they truly desire and are able to do. Women most of all (but by no means exclusively).

Megan said...

yes, I didn't think survival was calling hence use of quotes. was being ironic.

With choice, you no doubt will be looking at biblical understanding of choice? my thought without having looked into it extensively (hmm, my calling to academia somewhat stymied ; ) )is that some of the prioritising of choice in western culture is not all capitalism but comes out of Judeo- Christian paradigm of choice. Consumerism probably belittles the noble practice of choice.

Ian Packer said...

Most of what we talk about in terms of 'choice' has little to do with human *responsibility*. Hence that's why my next sentence spoke of "creative responsibility" which recognises freedom and the relational dynamic, perhaps even the question of authority, embdedded in it rather than the bare assertion of 'choice' (likewise in scare quotes).

My (perhaps annoying) question is what we might mean when we speak of an academic calling. Who is calling? I am inclined to think we have settled on a metaphoric use of calling that we occasionally infuse with divine significance on some occasions, and then on other pull back and speak in 'occupation' mode. And we slide between the two with little analysis.

Megan said...

absolutely, the language of calling is often used in a lazy fashion. Also, what is its meaning for those who have no professed religion? and why does calling/vocation language have such a pull on people, whatever their beliefs?

sounds interesting anyway Ian. I better stop getting distracted from my sermon, but happy to discuss at another time!

Anonymous said...

I'd be happy to chat to you about my experience of vocation which is incredible painful but asks some important questions. I think you need to ask more about unfulfilled calling and see what insights come. Is it right for me to neglect my children and my parents in order to serve the church? I think not! How then do I live with the pain and what I might describe as 'sluggishness' because I am not doing what I was made and formed to do with my days.
I started out doing more theological study thinking I would explore vocation but quickly changed to my preoccupation with 'liminality.' Maybe you can answer my questions about what happens to vocation in liminality!

Ian Packer said...

Chelle, maybe you could explain liminality to me!

But more seriously, I should mention I'm not so much doing an analysis on what people are going through internally when they speak of having a 'vocation' (since it seems to me already that people seem to be talking about quite a number of things).

In the way I'm understanding vocation as a fundamental human condition in relation to God and others, it would be a mistake to imagine that one particular set of tasks--even ones we feel so strongly about and from which we both derive great satisfaction and see blessing to others--is what exhausts our vocation. Fundamentally, as human beings, our vocation is to be conformed to the image of God's Son. Particular contingent roles among God's people are subservient to that and, as in the examples you mentioned, to other relationships, tasks, and roles. So, there may be a variety of callings to which we must respond, discerning their priority and their time and place.

A well-known NT scholar, now in NZ, basically had to lay aside his scholarly work at a time of his life when he was at his greatest scholarly fruitfulness and output in order to care full-time for his invalid wife. Where is his vocation? Does he feel at all frustrated? I'm sure he does. Where is his vocation in this time and in that place?

I'm beginning to think we need to be very critical of this notion of vocation and wary of its use while at the same time seeing it as so important and fundamental.

BTW, I DO hope we get to meet up again some time soon!!! :-)

Megan said...

just btw on the NT scholar in NZ, my thinking on this kind of thing is that we do not value those who do not/are unable to commit to something full time (unless they are a celebrity and want to put ut a perfume etc LOL). Need more of a concept of renaissance people - wonder whether connections made online opening that up more. Guess that related into professionalism/credentialism.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Ian,

You have already begun to see my point, even (I suspect) without knowing it.

I was talking to an evangelist friend yesterday about how the nature of the evangelistic task has changed quite a lot with the massive shifts in culture these past decades. Now, it is easy to share the story of Jesus, but as 'my experience' not as a set of facts. It struck me that this is kind of my pre-occupation - learning how to do evangelical (or maybe just orthodox) theology that BEGINS with experience. My particular experience of vocation poses a set of theological questions.

As you say, our experience can be distracting from the theological task, if it raises a series of statements or conclusions about God. However, if my experience raises a set of questions, we begin a critical engagement with our tradition and scripture which is very productive. So I would argue that there should be a place for the testimony of the inner experience of vocation within your broader task. Actually what I think is likely is that you have already done that but not integrated it into the rigours of the writing.

Look forward to your response.

Ian Packer said...

Hi Chelle - sure, I'm not discounting 'personal experience' (slippery as that is). And I'm certainly not imagining that we 'do theology' without some background that raises questions for us. I'm saying that I'm actually analysing what we mean when we say 'vocation' or 'my experience of vocation' - or, sometimes, it is a narrowing of what 'having a vocation' is or might be. In my area of interest (moral theology), I'm particularly concerned not to let testimony of being 'called to ministry' be the definition of vocation. Nonetheless, whenever I mention my project is on ethics and vocation, ordained people are very quick to tell me about their call to ministry, or 'laypeople' talk about their profession. None of these concerns are irrelevant to what I'm working on but, for the most part, they tend to jump to 'work' questions or expressing one's 'gifts'. But there's a whole lot more to this.