The “big questions” of vocation

The “big questions” of vocation January 15, 2015

The Faith and Work channel at Patheos is sponsoring a symposium with other blogs interested in the subject.  That would have to include us at the Cranach institute, since one of the major themes here is the doctrine of vocation.  The topic is the “big questions” of vocation, as raised by the quotations posted here.  Interestingly, the writers quoted are all from the Roman Catholic tradition, but I think the struggles they are articulate are common to evangelicals and other Protestants as well.  Here we can see just how helpful Luther’s distinctive take on vocation really is.

Read the quotations, read my thoughts on them after the jump, then join in on the discussion, both here and on the other participating blogs.

One theme here is the distinction between the “active” and the “contemplative” life.  The key Biblical text for this is the account of Mary and Martha in Bethany (Luke 10:38-42).  Martha was busy with her household labor, but Mary sat at Jesus’ feet to hear His teachings.  Our Lord acknowledged Martha but said that Mary had taken the better path.  Martha was thought to represent the “active” life of work in the world, while Mary represented the “contemplative” life, as in monasticism.  Though the laity engaged in the “active” life can certainly be Christians, the cloistered “contemplative” life is “better” spiritually.

And yet, the monasteries and convents too would make room for active labor.  Thomas Aquinas here says that active labor can, in fact, help the contemplative life by quieting the internal passions.  Contemplation all the time (as many of us well know)  can lead to an inordinate inwardness and subjectivity, neglecting the external world and our responsibilities in it.  So the religious orders made a point of requiring physical labor as well as worship and meditation.  The Benedictine principle of “prayer and work” (ora et labora) turned many monasteries and convents into sites of economic productivity, as in those famous for their wine, beer, and brandy, as well as communion bread, farm products, and caskets.

But while certain medieval reforms brought the “active” into the “contemplative,” Luther did the opposite.  He brought contemplation into the active life.  As various scholars have shown, Luther took the monastic disciplines and applied them in the lives of the laity.  Devotional exercises took place in the home.  Bibles were given to peasants and craftsmen, who were taught to read them.  Ora et labora  moved from the monasteries to the workplaces of the world.  Christians could be contemplative in their active vocations.  Luther broke down the dichtomy between them.

In the Augustine quotation, we see a perennial issue:  A person becomes a Christian, then wants to jettison what he or she has been doing in favor of pursuing full-time church work.   Here we see Augustine’s disgust with his profession as teacher of rhetoric and his growing resolution to become a priest.  Now no one can deny St. Augustine’s calling was to be a great theologian.  He did, however, make good use of his rhetorical training in his vocation as theologian, not only in his brilliant and persuasive writing but in his treatment of Christian rhetoric in “Of Christian Doctrine.”

So it does happen that a new Christian is called into the ministry or the mission field.  But the doctrine of vocation teaches that this is not necessary, that the Christian life can be lived out in the secular arena no less than the mission field.  Moreover, that people have God-given callings.  Even if that means having been called to be a rhetoric professor (kind of like me).

Another theme suggested by these quotations is the “big question” of God’s will.   How do I know what God wants me to do?  How do I know what God is calling me to?  And what if I make the wrong choice?

But a Lutheran view of vocation can calm these anxieties.  God doesn’t have a secret intention for our lives that we must somehow discover and that is easily missed.  God’s will is not something that can be thwarted by our wills.  Vocation is in the here and now.  Vocation is found in the tasks that are put before us to do day by day and in the neighbors whom we find in our lives and whom we are to love and serve right now.  We find our callings in the normal, ordinary course of things, in the opportunities that come our way and in the situations that we find ourselves in.  God brings us to our vocations–not just in the workplace but in our culture and in our families–in His providential workings for each of us.  So we can be confident that what we are doing now is our calling, and that, in the normal course of things, God might call us to something else.

Here the quotation from Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker movement sounds very Lutheran when it comes to finding one’s vocation:  “It just came about. It just happened.”







Most of these have reference to what Luther would have considered the false dichotomy between the “active” and the “contemplative” life. Then there is the worry, common to both evangelicals and Catholics, I guess, about “have I made the right choice?” and “what if I am missing God’s will for my life”? These are anxieties the doctrine of vocation, properly considered, should soothe, not make worse!


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