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Is there anything about vocation that my article either leaves out or gets wrong?

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • T Sherm

    Dr. Veith,

    I’ve been doing some thinking about this topic lately, spurred on by discussions in systematics class, reading the Front Porch Republic blog, the latest issue of the Concordia Journal, and efforts to introduce myself to the writings of Wendell Berry.

    An issue has been raised in my mind, both by systematics class and by reading Berry’s “The Unsettling of America”, about whether the current Lutheran view of vocation is adequate, or whether it is too much of an apology for our current American-economic order.

    In reading the article you posted today you said:

    “Thus, God heals by means of doctors, nurses, and other medical vocations. He makes our lives easier by means of inventors, scientists, and engineers. He creates beauty by means of artists, authors, and musicians. He gives us clothing, shelter, and other things we need by means of factory workers, construction contractors, and others who work with their hands. He cleans up after us by means of janitors and garbage collectors.”

    I’ve been wondering if this line of thinking makes us all too susceptible to the modern problem of specialization, as Berry raises it.

    An example of this would be in the area of education. Often on this blog, homeschooling has been encouraged as good thing, and a right exercise of the vocation of parent. However, according to the specialized theory of vocation as it seems to be presented, wouldn’t it be better to send our children to those who have been specially trained to teach? Couldn’t we say that God educates by means of trained teachers? Would it be preventing others from exercising their proper vocation by keeping your kids at home?

    This particular form of vocation, I think, is what underlies our modern economy. It is the reason why in tough economic times, we are urged to go out and by things, instead of saving our money wisely and living by the value of thrift. Everyone has their own little specialized area of production, and unless we participate as good consumers, we deprive others of their opportunity to perform their vocation and thus put the whole system at risk of collapse.

    I’m not sure that this hyper-specialized theory of vocation is ultimately helpful for more than justifying the system that we currently have in place. As Berry argues in his book, and as T. Webb gives credence to in his testimony, our modern system is life denying. It cuts us off from meaningful, productive work, from our families, from the creation. Instead, I think that when we talk about vocation, we need to go back to the basic Lutheran categories of the economic, civic, and ecclesial. The important thing to remember, is that the economic category has little to do with economy as we think about the word today. It is about the household, about providing the basic essentials that make life possible for one’s family: food, clothing, and shelter. It is here also that raising and educating children, loving and caring for one’s spouse, and meaningful work all take place. It is meant to happen within the context of the home.

    And yet, in our system today, we farm all of these things out to specialists. In most households today, there is little actual work that is done. In fact, the house itself sits empty for the majority of daylight hours. It is not a place a production, but a sphere of consumption only.

    Our homes could be the center of vocation. They could be the place where the family was united around fundamental, life-giving work. They could be the place from which we reach out and connect with our neighbors, as we engage in similar work and provide each other with mutual support.

    But right now, that is not how it works. We let others do the real, meaningful work for us. We let others work for our food and drink, clothing and shoes, and forfeit our blessings of land and animals, and increasingly today, even wife and children. And we go off to do “work” that requires no skill, no special gifts, and provides minimal meaning or value to anyone.

    I agree that we were created to be dependent on others, but it seems that for the most part these days, we are not dependent on other individuals (as we might be if we lived in communities in which we were all doing the same essential work of providing for our families), but upon large corporations and organizations. If we were better able to provide more things for ourselves, might we be in a better position to also help our neighbors, and to receive from them things that we truly need?

  • T Sherm

    Dr. Veith,

    I’ve been doing some thinking about this topic lately, spurred on by discussions in systematics class, reading the Front Porch Republic blog, the latest issue of the Concordia Journal, and efforts to introduce myself to the writings of Wendell Berry.

    An issue has been raised in my mind, both by systematics class and by reading Berry’s “The Unsettling of America”, about whether the current Lutheran view of vocation is adequate, or whether it is too much of an apology for our current American-economic order.

    In reading the article you posted today you said:

    “Thus, God heals by means of doctors, nurses, and other medical vocations. He makes our lives easier by means of inventors, scientists, and engineers. He creates beauty by means of artists, authors, and musicians. He gives us clothing, shelter, and other things we need by means of factory workers, construction contractors, and others who work with their hands. He cleans up after us by means of janitors and garbage collectors.”

    I’ve been wondering if this line of thinking makes us all too susceptible to the modern problem of specialization, as Berry raises it.

    An example of this would be in the area of education. Often on this blog, homeschooling has been encouraged as good thing, and a right exercise of the vocation of parent. However, according to the specialized theory of vocation as it seems to be presented, wouldn’t it be better to send our children to those who have been specially trained to teach? Couldn’t we say that God educates by means of trained teachers? Would it be preventing others from exercising their proper vocation by keeping your kids at home?

    This particular form of vocation, I think, is what underlies our modern economy. It is the reason why in tough economic times, we are urged to go out and by things, instead of saving our money wisely and living by the value of thrift. Everyone has their own little specialized area of production, and unless we participate as good consumers, we deprive others of their opportunity to perform their vocation and thus put the whole system at risk of collapse.

    I’m not sure that this hyper-specialized theory of vocation is ultimately helpful for more than justifying the system that we currently have in place. As Berry argues in his book, and as T. Webb gives credence to in his testimony, our modern system is life denying. It cuts us off from meaningful, productive work, from our families, from the creation. Instead, I think that when we talk about vocation, we need to go back to the basic Lutheran categories of the economic, civic, and ecclesial. The important thing to remember, is that the economic category has little to do with economy as we think about the word today. It is about the household, about providing the basic essentials that make life possible for one’s family: food, clothing, and shelter. It is here also that raising and educating children, loving and caring for one’s spouse, and meaningful work all take place. It is meant to happen within the context of the home.

    And yet, in our system today, we farm all of these things out to specialists. In most households today, there is little actual work that is done. In fact, the house itself sits empty for the majority of daylight hours. It is not a place a production, but a sphere of consumption only.

    Our homes could be the center of vocation. They could be the place where the family was united around fundamental, life-giving work. They could be the place from which we reach out and connect with our neighbors, as we engage in similar work and provide each other with mutual support.

    But right now, that is not how it works. We let others do the real, meaningful work for us. We let others work for our food and drink, clothing and shoes, and forfeit our blessings of land and animals, and increasingly today, even wife and children. And we go off to do “work” that requires no skill, no special gifts, and provides minimal meaning or value to anyone.

    I agree that we were created to be dependent on others, but it seems that for the most part these days, we are not dependent on other individuals (as we might be if we lived in communities in which we were all doing the same essential work of providing for our families), but upon large corporations and organizations. If we were better able to provide more things for ourselves, might we be in a better position to also help our neighbors, and to receive from them things that we truly need?

  • http://www.thirduse.com fws

    There is nothing you say there that a Reformed christian could not also say.

    And you are leaving room for the Reformed understanding of vocation as sanctification, and so sanctification can be understood in what you write easily as something we have to make an effort at doing which is Vocation.

    Here is the problem:

    If Sanctification=trying harder, and sanctification=christian, then christian= faith + something we need to do!

    You use the word “christian” in a way that could said independently of the death and resurrection of Christ, as though there is such a thing as “christian morality”. Earthly morality [ie Vocation!] can exist and be known and done quite independently of the death and resurrection of christ.

    You are leaving out an explicit detailing of the baptismal dimension of vocation.

    Baptism is alone where the truly christian dimension of vocation is found (and vocation is pure mortification). This dimension and difference from the pagan is in nothing at all we can do in our bodies. It is in the “the renewal of our minds”. We christians, unlike most pagans except for those who are in despair, see that vocation is death, and that does not bother us! And here baptismal death is not just spiritual or metaphorical or symbolic death. It is really and physically and bodily deathly deadening death.

    This difference then between the pagan and our own old adams, and us christians as new man looks exactly, and alone (!) like this:

    “Finally, baptism, as death and resurrection, gives the clue which enables us to understand suffering and death in this world [and vocation!] , that suffering and death which reached a climax in the passion and the cross of christ. The sufferings of this world, as mentioned above, are means of mortification.

    Luther can say even that the more hardly we suffer the happer we are, because the more quickly is the meaning of baptism fulfilled [or realized] and deliverance [from sin] wrought. Times of persecution are the happiest times in the history of the Church. Death itself is the result and penalty of sin; but christ has borne the penalty, and in our baptism, when by faith we are identified with Christ, we are forgiven even as we accept the judgement.

    But death is also, in the mercy and the providence of God, the means whereby sin is destroyed. The believer , although he will not die eternally, because he is forgiven,must still die in the flesh, in order that sin may finally destroy itself .

    But for the believer, death has lost it´s true terror. He does not need to fear death, because he is forgiven. He can welcome death, because it is the climax, a completion of the saving work of God.”

    And here is what I would call the Gene Veith part……

    ” This does not mean that life on earth is no longer valued: It means that it is set against the background of eternity and the redemptive work of God [in Christ alone]. To the unbeliever, who has hope only in this world, death is an enemy, irrational, causing qualms of conscience, holding the threat of judgement. But for the one who looks [alone] at Christ, there is in death, the promise of Life. The perfect attitude to death is that of Christ, who went to his early and cruel death without a qualm, composed, serene, obedient, opening up as the forerunner and as the savior of the way to Life.”

    http://www.theologicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/eq/luther_bromiley.pdf

    So this re-visioning is the ONLY part that separates christian from pagan. The outward acts and vocation are absolutely and even intrinsically identical and are good gifts of God and a form of righteousness that pleased him and he providences even through and for all the wicked, even without our prayers or asking. No faith at all is required for any of this kind of righteousness.

    I assume because to be radically and explicitly Lutheran would mean that World would not publish you?

  • http://www.thirduse.com fws

    There is nothing you say there that a Reformed christian could not also say.

    And you are leaving room for the Reformed understanding of vocation as sanctification, and so sanctification can be understood in what you write easily as something we have to make an effort at doing which is Vocation.

    Here is the problem:

    If Sanctification=trying harder, and sanctification=christian, then christian= faith + something we need to do!

    You use the word “christian” in a way that could said independently of the death and resurrection of Christ, as though there is such a thing as “christian morality”. Earthly morality [ie Vocation!] can exist and be known and done quite independently of the death and resurrection of christ.

    You are leaving out an explicit detailing of the baptismal dimension of vocation.

    Baptism is alone where the truly christian dimension of vocation is found (and vocation is pure mortification). This dimension and difference from the pagan is in nothing at all we can do in our bodies. It is in the “the renewal of our minds”. We christians, unlike most pagans except for those who are in despair, see that vocation is death, and that does not bother us! And here baptismal death is not just spiritual or metaphorical or symbolic death. It is really and physically and bodily deathly deadening death.

    This difference then between the pagan and our own old adams, and us christians as new man looks exactly, and alone (!) like this:

    “Finally, baptism, as death and resurrection, gives the clue which enables us to understand suffering and death in this world [and vocation!] , that suffering and death which reached a climax in the passion and the cross of christ. The sufferings of this world, as mentioned above, are means of mortification.

    Luther can say even that the more hardly we suffer the happer we are, because the more quickly is the meaning of baptism fulfilled [or realized] and deliverance [from sin] wrought. Times of persecution are the happiest times in the history of the Church. Death itself is the result and penalty of sin; but christ has borne the penalty, and in our baptism, when by faith we are identified with Christ, we are forgiven even as we accept the judgement.

    But death is also, in the mercy and the providence of God, the means whereby sin is destroyed. The believer , although he will not die eternally, because he is forgiven,must still die in the flesh, in order that sin may finally destroy itself .

    But for the believer, death has lost it´s true terror. He does not need to fear death, because he is forgiven. He can welcome death, because it is the climax, a completion of the saving work of God.”

    And here is what I would call the Gene Veith part……

    ” This does not mean that life on earth is no longer valued: It means that it is set against the background of eternity and the redemptive work of God [in Christ alone]. To the unbeliever, who has hope only in this world, death is an enemy, irrational, causing qualms of conscience, holding the threat of judgement. But for the one who looks [alone] at Christ, there is in death, the promise of Life. The perfect attitude to death is that of Christ, who went to his early and cruel death without a qualm, composed, serene, obedient, opening up as the forerunner and as the savior of the way to Life.”

    http://www.theologicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/eq/luther_bromiley.pdf

    So this re-visioning is the ONLY part that separates christian from pagan. The outward acts and vocation are absolutely and even intrinsically identical and are good gifts of God and a form of righteousness that pleased him and he providences even through and for all the wicked, even without our prayers or asking. No faith at all is required for any of this kind of righteousness.

    I assume because to be radically and explicitly Lutheran would mean that World would not publish you?

  • http://www.geneveith.com Gene Veith

    T Sherm, thanks for your thoughtful comment. Certainly, Luther’s economic system was very different from today–more like what Wendell Berry recommends–and the household is, indeed, central. I do think our modern economic system can lead to an alienation of labor. But I also think Luther’s doctrine of vocation can be applied even in today’s economic system, working to heal some of that alienation. On the other hand, the division of labor goes back to Plato, though, as you say, it is different to receive the specialty of others from an individual, in community, as opposed to the impersonal corporations of today. But still, I think real goods are exchanged even here.

    FWS, if you would read what the Reformed write about vocation, you would see how Lutheran this is. The former stress what we are supposed to DO, as Christian businessmen, Christian artists, Christian parents, etc. My Lutheran formulation stresses what God does through vocation. Also Lutheran is that God works through means. Some treatments of the subject depict “calling” as a voice from God, or the impression that God wants you to do something, rather than as something that operates in the normal order of life. Also, tying into what you yourself keep saying (as I said in my comment to your comment on the article), the particular work of a Christian and a non-Christian may be exactly the same. To say vocation is where sanctification happens does NOT say that vocation IS sanctification. Nor is sacrifice of the self for the neighbor anything like the notion that we must sacrifice ourselves to appease God, which I tried to specifically reject in saying that our relationship to God is based solely on Christ’s Cross.

  • http://www.geneveith.com Gene Veith

    T Sherm, thanks for your thoughtful comment. Certainly, Luther’s economic system was very different from today–more like what Wendell Berry recommends–and the household is, indeed, central. I do think our modern economic system can lead to an alienation of labor. But I also think Luther’s doctrine of vocation can be applied even in today’s economic system, working to heal some of that alienation. On the other hand, the division of labor goes back to Plato, though, as you say, it is different to receive the specialty of others from an individual, in community, as opposed to the impersonal corporations of today. But still, I think real goods are exchanged even here.

    FWS, if you would read what the Reformed write about vocation, you would see how Lutheran this is. The former stress what we are supposed to DO, as Christian businessmen, Christian artists, Christian parents, etc. My Lutheran formulation stresses what God does through vocation. Also Lutheran is that God works through means. Some treatments of the subject depict “calling” as a voice from God, or the impression that God wants you to do something, rather than as something that operates in the normal order of life. Also, tying into what you yourself keep saying (as I said in my comment to your comment on the article), the particular work of a Christian and a non-Christian may be exactly the same. To say vocation is where sanctification happens does NOT say that vocation IS sanctification. Nor is sacrifice of the self for the neighbor anything like the notion that we must sacrifice ourselves to appease God, which I tried to specifically reject in saying that our relationship to God is based solely on Christ’s Cross.

  • Booklover

    Thanks for your comments, T Sherm. They reminded me of two rather opposing quotes that I have up on my refrigerator. One is actually from Ellen Goodman:

    “Normal is getting dressed in clothes that you buy for work and driving through traffic in a car that you are still paying for, in order to get to the job you need to pay for the clothes and the car and the house you leave vacant all day so you can afford to live in it.”

    The other is from the Hobbit:

    “His house was perfect, whether you liked food, or sleep, or work, or story-telling, or singing, or just sitting and thinking, best, or a pleasant mixture of them all.”

  • Booklover

    Thanks for your comments, T Sherm. They reminded me of two rather opposing quotes that I have up on my refrigerator. One is actually from Ellen Goodman:

    “Normal is getting dressed in clothes that you buy for work and driving through traffic in a car that you are still paying for, in order to get to the job you need to pay for the clothes and the car and the house you leave vacant all day so you can afford to live in it.”

    The other is from the Hobbit:

    “His house was perfect, whether you liked food, or sleep, or work, or story-telling, or singing, or just sitting and thinking, best, or a pleasant mixture of them all.”

  • http://www.thirduse.com fws

    Dr Veith, thanks for the gracious tone of your response to my response. Someday I will acquire your ability to set aside my ego like you are able to. It will take a miracle.

    You actually did get things exactly right.I did not mean to say otherwise and apologize if it seems I said otherwise.

    But even a life long lutheran like me was trained to think in reformed categories. I was taught that a work , to be truly god pleasing, must have two things…. proper motive (a “gospel” motive that seeks no reward for doing good, only a loving response to the Gospel) and conformity to God´s list of rules. This is not Lutheran. This is Reformed in fact. I can read everything you write and still manage to read it in that reformed way. I will totally miss the Lutheran part you put in, because those points are pretty subtle actually.

    The Lutheran difference is a pretty shocking one when one realizes that Lutherans are teaching that there is nothing we can do in Vocation that has eternal consequences. This teaching, which is really just saying we are saved by faith alone, I would miss. I would think instead that you are tutoring me on how to become more of a christian , or a better christian , by means of vocation.

    And a Lutheran like me can make an overstatement and so be wrong as well:

    Sanctification is not a passive thing. the Believer as New Man is a love and vocation factory!

    But this love just happens like light comes from the sun.

    there is nothing in sanctification that looks like that only “doing” we know as sinners, which as sinful old adams always involves trying harder and effort and discipline.

    Even then our old adam steps in and takes this teaching down the wrong path. He has us checking under the hood to see if our actions happen for the right motivations……

    You picked a complex topic as your vocation dr veith. but then you know that eh? ;) and you are so right that the clear teaching on this is sorely needed by both christian and pagan alike in our day and age.

  • http://www.thirduse.com fws

    Dr Veith, thanks for the gracious tone of your response to my response. Someday I will acquire your ability to set aside my ego like you are able to. It will take a miracle.

    You actually did get things exactly right.I did not mean to say otherwise and apologize if it seems I said otherwise.

    But even a life long lutheran like me was trained to think in reformed categories. I was taught that a work , to be truly god pleasing, must have two things…. proper motive (a “gospel” motive that seeks no reward for doing good, only a loving response to the Gospel) and conformity to God´s list of rules. This is not Lutheran. This is Reformed in fact. I can read everything you write and still manage to read it in that reformed way. I will totally miss the Lutheran part you put in, because those points are pretty subtle actually.

    The Lutheran difference is a pretty shocking one when one realizes that Lutherans are teaching that there is nothing we can do in Vocation that has eternal consequences. This teaching, which is really just saying we are saved by faith alone, I would miss. I would think instead that you are tutoring me on how to become more of a christian , or a better christian , by means of vocation.

    And a Lutheran like me can make an overstatement and so be wrong as well:

    Sanctification is not a passive thing. the Believer as New Man is a love and vocation factory!

    But this love just happens like light comes from the sun.

    there is nothing in sanctification that looks like that only “doing” we know as sinners, which as sinful old adams always involves trying harder and effort and discipline.

    Even then our old adam steps in and takes this teaching down the wrong path. He has us checking under the hood to see if our actions happen for the right motivations……

    You picked a complex topic as your vocation dr veith. but then you know that eh? ;) and you are so right that the clear teaching on this is sorely needed by both christian and pagan alike in our day and age.


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