In modern North America, the question "What am I supposed to do with my life and why?" is both focal and vexed. Our pragmatic society focuses on work and career so much that our first question on meeting a new friend is "What do you do?" Given this national obsession, it would be reasonable (but wrong) to expect North Americans to drink deeply from centuries of reflections about this thing called "work."

But we know this is not the case. The pragmatic impulse hurriedly sweeps by all deep questions and philosophical meanderings, rushing down the straight and narrow path to getting stuff done. Our pragma itself (Greek for "business" or "thing done") prevents us from asking the "why" questions.

Unavoidably, we do live out our jobs and careers with the aid of a philosophical basis (even if it is an unexamined one). The term "vocation" has now taken on secular freight -- standing simply for our career or our work. But in the pre-Reformation West, "vocation" (or "calling") meant a dedication of life to the self-disciplined contemplation of God -- to the near exclusion of secular employments. During capitalism's incubation, the Reformers enlarged the term "vocation" to a new meaning: they insisted that in whatever sphere of labor, God calls people for a particular work. From then on, a rich tradition of meditation on vocation multiplied within the church. Yet much of this wisdom is virtually unknown today.

Two books, four questions

Callings: Twenty Centuries of Christian Wisdom on Vocation, edited by William C. Placher (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2005, 452 pp., $38).

Responding to this vocational amnesia come two recently published books that serve as companion anthologies of source materials on the subject -- William C. Placher's edited volume Callings: Twenty Centuries of Christian Wisdom on Vocation, and Mark R. Schwehn and Dorothy C. Bass's edited volume Leading Lives That Matter: What We Should Do and Who We Should Be. Placher takes a chronological approach, presenting a set of primary sources from Ignatius of Antioch (in the first century) to Karl Barth (in the 20th). Schwehn and Bass, on the other hand, proceed topically, surveying mostly modern thinkers both within and outside of the church -- from Albert Schweitzer and Theodore Roosevelt, to Dorothy Sayers and Robert Frost, to ethicist Gilbert Meilaender and the Matt Damon/Ben Affleck screenplay of Good Will Hunting, with a sprinkling of biblical and classical sources along the way. 

Both books share the goal expressed by Schwehn and Bass in their introduction: "to lead readers to know their own minds better by encountering the minds of others who have gone before them." In fact, Schwehn and Bass differ most from Placher in this respect: they seek to lay out the inner logic and vocabulary of how Christians have historically thought about vocation. Part 1 argues that this historical conversation has used three distinct vocabularies to talk about what it means to live a significant life -- that is, vocabularies of "authenticity and individualism; virtue and character; vocation and the divine."

Christian conversation about this is grounded first and foremost in Scripture, even if the Bible seems to say little, at least directly, about the matter of vocational callings. But within this spare witness we can include two passages in Genesis. In the first, Adam is placed in the garden "to till and keep it" (Genesis 2:15) -- this implies, as Placher says, that "there is work to be done and human beings are to find meaning and fulfillment in serving God's pleasure by doing it."

Leading Lives That Matter: What We Should Do and Who We Should Be, edited by Mark R. Schwehn and Dorothy C. Bass (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2006, 545 pp., $40).

Of course, the fall injects a darker note, and the second Genesis passage (beginning with 3:17) frames work as punishment, with Adam now able to eat only in toil and by the sweat of his face. What are we to conclude from these texts? Perhaps only what our experience also tells us: that "work can be both blessing and curse," as Placher tells us -- "the task that fulfills us and gives our lives meaning in the service of God or the burdensome job we endure to put food on the table for our families."

Other Old Testament texts have been used by Christians meditating on work and its meaning. Gregory the Great famously compared the active life -- our workaday tasks, including those done out of love of others, for the common good -- with the "blear-eyed" and fruitful Leah (Genesis 29:17). The contemplative life, on the other hand -- the quest for intimacy with God that monks and mystics through history have pursued -- Gregory compared with Leah's clear-seeing but sterile sister Rachel. Work produces visible results but obscures from us the spiritual truths of things, while contemplation and prayer, while short on immediate, visible results, provide us with precious insights. On this matter, as on so many others, pragmatic North American Christians find themselves over-Leahed and under-Racheled.

In the New Testament, the term klesis ("calling") is used almost always to refer to the calling to faith -- to be a Christian. Although it does not use the term "call," one passage does seem to cast light on the status of our work on earth: "Whatever your task, put your selves into it, as done for the Lord and not for your masters" (Colossians 3:23). This passage has received much attention in subsequent Christian discussions of vocation, but it's still a thin basis on which to proceed. It looks like this matter of vocation is yet another place where Christians must supplement the biblical witness by listening to the centuries-long conversation of the church. Hence the need for books such as these.

Secular work as divine vocation

Both books provide ample food for thought on this important topic of vocation, including reflections both on what the Puritans, modifying an idea of Calvin's, called our "general" vocations (to be disciples of Christ) and on our "particular" or "special" vocations (to do whatever work we end up pursuing). Most illuminating to me is the wealth of material on how secular work can be understood as divine vocation.

How can I navigate them?

Many of the questions that people called to secular work may ask themselves are addressed in these volumes:

  • How is God at work in the marketplace and public square?

  • How can I know I am called to work with God in these secular settings and discover my own particular calling there?

  • In general, how should I live out such a calling in a way that honors God and joins him in his work?

  • In particular, what are the special temptations and rewards of a calling to a secular vocation, and how can I navigate them?

We have culled some answers to these questions from the 20 centuries of Christian wisdom highlighted in these volumes. To explore the questions and answers, scroll down.

The Thomas Merton prayer

"My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone."

Leading Lives that Matter, page 450

1. How is God at work in the marketplace and public square?

"God also professes in his Word to have purposes pre-arranged for all events; to govern by a plan which is from eternity even, and which, in some proper sense, comprehends every thing. And what is this but another way of conceiving that God has a definite place and plan adjusted for every human being? And, without such a plan, he could not even govern the world intelligently, or make a proper universe of the created system; for it becomes a universe only in the grand unity of reason, which includes it. Otherwise, it were only a jumble of fortuities, without counsel, end or law." (Horace Bushnell, "Every Man's Life a Plan of God," in Placher, 355)

"When I think of a soldier fulfilling his office by punishing the wicked, killing the wicked, and creating so much misery, it seems an un-Christian work completely contrary to Christian love. But when I think of how it protects the good and keeps and preserves wife and child, house and farm, property, and honor and peace, then I see how precious and godly this work is." (Martin Luther, "Whether Soldiers, Too, Can Be Saved," in Placher, 218-19.)

"Christ's labors and sufferings, accepted of His own free will, have marvelously sweetened all suffering and all labor. And not only by His example, but by His grace and by the hope held forth of everlasting recompense, has He made pain and grief more easy to endure; ‘for that which is at present momentary and light of our tribulation, worketh for us above measure exceedingly an eternal weight of glory' (2 Cor. 4:17)." (Pope Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum, in Placher, 365)

"If now we could have faith enough to believe that all human life can be with divine purpose; that God saves not only the soul, but the whole of human life; that anything which serves to make men healthy, intelligent, happy, and good is a service to the Father of men; that the kingdom of God is not bounded by the Church, but includes all human relations -- then all professions would be hallowed and receive religious dignity. A man making a shoe or arguing a law case or planting potatoes or teaching school, could feel that this was itself a contribution to the welfare of mankind, and indeed his main contribution to it." (Walter Rauschenbusch,Christianity and the Social Crisis, in Placher, 384.)

"The creation of wealth can be the creation of new possibilities for an entire community, with prospects of work for young people and a prosperity that enables social as well as economic well-being. . . . Economic prospects can generate hope as well as wealth, sustaining communities and helping people to live a full life. And along the way, opportunities for service, for living in love within a family, or for participating constructively in the life of a Christian congregation would also have been present." (Gary D. Badcock, "Choosing," in Schwehn & Bass, 104)

"It is the business of the Church to recognize that the secular vocation, as such, is sacred. Christian people, and particularly perhaps the Christian clergy, must get it firmly into their heads that when a man or woman is called to a particular job of secular work, that is as true a vocation as though he or she were called to specifically religious work. . . . [The worker] must be able to serve God in his work, and the work itself must be accepted and respected as the medium of divine creation." (Dorothy L. Sayers, "Why Work?" in Schwehn & Bass, 194)

2. How can I know I am called to work with God in these secular settings and discover my own particular calling there?

"It is for action that God maintains us and our abilities: work is the moral as well as the natural end of power. It is to act by the power that is commanded us. . . . It is action that God is most served and honored by, not so much by our being able to do good, but by our doing it. Who will keep a servant that is able to work, and will not? Will his mere ability answer your expectation? . . . The public welfare or the good of the many is to be valued above our own. Every man therefore is bound to do all the good he can to others, especially for the church and commonwealth. And this is not done by idleness, but by labor! As the bees labor to replenish their hive, so man, being a sociable creature, must labor for the good of the society which he belongs to, in which his own is contained as a part." (Richard Baxter,Directions about Our Labor and Callings, in Placher, 280.)

"Every man must examine himself of two things: first, touching his affection, secondly, touching his gifts. For his affection, he must search what mind he has to any calling, and in what calling he desires most of all to glorify God. For his gifts he must examine for and to what calling they are fittest. Having thus tried both his affection and gifts, finding also the calling to which they tend with one consent, he may say, that is his calling; because he likes it best, and is every way the fittest to it. . . . Yet, because many men are partial in judging of their inclination and gifts, the best way for them is to use the advice and help of others that are able to give direction herein, and to discern better than themselves." (William Perkins, A Treatise of the Vocations,in Placher, 271.)

"It is a great satisfaction to an honest mind to spend his life in doing the greatest good he can; and a prison and constant calamity to be tied to spend one's life in doing little good at all to others, though he should grow rich by it himself." (Richard Baxter, Directions about Our Labor and Callings, in Placher, 283.)

"Self-knowledge is an open-ended process, a fact twentieth-century theologian Karl Barth underscored in his Church Dogmatics: ‘In the last analysis man has no more knowledge of himself than mastery over himself. Again and again he must let himself be shown who he is. His faithfulness to himself, then, [consists] only in constant attention and openness to that which, as God claims him, will be continually disclosed to him as his true self, as the real aptitude which he has been given together with its limits, and then in the corresponding decision for perhaps a much more daring or possibly a much more humble action than that to which he has hitherto considered himself called.' Some experimentation, then, may be required in the process of career choice." (Lee Hardy, "Making the Match: Career Choice," quoting Barth, in Schwehn & Bass, 95)

"An honest lack of self-knowledge is not the only problem in making a career choice. The sins of greed, pride, envy, and fear can enter into the picture too, clouding our vision of who we are and what we were cut out to do. We might have our eye on a certain career because of the salary. . . . Or perhaps we find ourselves attracted to a certain career because of its social prestige. . . . Our career becomes a place where we hide from others, and especially ourselves. On the basis of these and similarly errant motives, we can convince ourselves that we are qualified for certain careers, while what led us to choose those careers had very little to do with our particular gifts or the human needs around us." (Lee Hardy, "Making the Match: Career Choice," quoting Barth, in Schwehn & Bass, 96-7)

"Is it really possible to miss the will of God [in one's career choice]? I have found such a vision of the Christian vocation to be extremely unhelpful, and because I am convinced that there are many people (especially young people) who are similarly mistaken, I have sought to develop a different understanding of the Christian vocation. Christian vocation is not reducible to the acquisition of a career goal or to its realization in time. It is, rather, something relating to the great issues of the spiritual life. It has to do with what one lives ‘for' rather than with what one does. . . . The human vocation is to do the will of God and so to live life ‘abundantly' (John 10:10), but the will of God does not extend down to the details of career choice." (Gary D. Badcock, "Choosing," in Schwehn & Bass, 106-7)

"People do not fulfill the responsibility laid on them by faithfully performing their earthly vocational obligations as citizens, workers, and parents, but by hearing the call of Jesus Christ that, although it leads them also into earthly obligations, is never synonymous with these, but instead always transcends them as a reality standing before and behind them. Vocation in the New Testament sense is never a sanctioning of the worldly orders as such. Its Yes always includes at the same time the sharpest No, the sharpest protest against the world. . . . The task given to me by my vocation is thus limited; but my responsibility to the call of Jesus Christ knows no bounds." (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, "The Place of Responsibility," in Schwehn & Bass, 109)

3. In general, how should I live out such a calling in a way that honors God and joins him in his work?

"We are the stewards of everything God has conferred on us by which we are able to help our neighbor, and are required to render account of our stewardship. Moreover, the only right stewardship is that which is tested by the rule of love. Thus it will come about that we shall not only join zeal for another's benefit with care for our own advantage, but shall subordinate the latter to the former. . . ." (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, book 3, chapter 7, "The Sum of the Christian Life: The Denial of Ourselves," in Placher, 235.)

"If you would lead a life unblameable both before God and man, you must first of all bethink yourself, what is your particular calling, and then proceed to practice duties of the Moral Law, and all other duties of Christianity, in that very calling. And if you would have signs and tokens of your election and salvation, you must fetch them from the constant practice of your two callings [that is, to discipleship and to your specific vocation] jointly together; sever them in your life, and you shall find no comfort, but rather shame and confusion of face, unless you repent." (William Perkins, A Treatise of the Vocations, in Placher, 269.)

"It is as much the duty of men in worldly business to live wholly unto God, as it is the duty of those who are devoted to Divine service. . . . As all men have all their powers and faculties from God, so all men are obliged to act for God, with all their powers and faculties. . . . " ‘whether we eat or drink, or whatsoever we do,' we must ‘do all to the glory of God' (1 Cor. 10:31) . . . If we are worldly or earthly-minded in our employments, if they are carried on with vain desires and covetous tempers, only to satisfy ourselves, we can no more be said to live to the glory of God than gluttons and drunkards can be said to eat and drink to the glory of God." (William Law, A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, in Placher, 304-306.)

"Most of the employments of life . . . may be made a substantial part of our duty to God if we engage in them only so far, and for such ends, as are suitable to beings that are to live above the world, all the time that they live in the world. . . . [worldly business] must have no more of our hands, our hearts, or our time than is consistent with a hearty, daily, careful preparation of ourselves for another life." (William Law, A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, in Placher, 307.)

"Industry and commerce are good. They serve the needs of men. The men eminent in industry and commerce are good men, with the fine qualities of human nature. But the organization of industry and commerce is such that along with its useful service it carries death, physical and moral. . . . If there are statesman prophets, and apostles who set truth and justice above selfish advancement; if their call finds a response in the great body of the people; if a new tide of religious faith and moral enthusiasm creates new standards of duty and a new capacity for self-sacrifice; if the strong learn to direct their love of power to the uplifting of the people and see the highest self-assertion in self-sacrifice -- then the intrenchments of vested wrong will melt away. . . ." (Walter Rauschenbusch, Christianity and the Social Crisis, in Placher 380-1)

"In so many respects are the children of men stewards of the Lord, the Possessor of heaven and earth: So large a portion of his goods, of various kinds, hath he committed to their charge. . . . The Lord will farther inquire, ‘Hast thou been a wise and faithful steward with regard to the talents of a mixed nature which I lent thee? Didst thou employ thy health and strength, not in folly or sin, not in the pleasures which perished in the using, "not in making provision for the flesh, to fulfill the desires thereof" (Rom. 13:14); but in a vigorous pursuit of that better part which none could take away from thee? . . . for the promoting of virtue in the world, for the enlargement of my kingdom? Did thou employ whatever share of power thou had, whatever influence over others, by the love or esteem of thee which they had conceived, for the increase of their wisdom and holiness?" (John Wesley, "Sermon 51: The Good Steward," in Placher, 323-4)

"Vocation is responsibility, and responsibility is the whole response of the whole person to reality as a whole. This is precisely why a myopic self-limitation to one's vocational obligation in the narrowest sense is out of the question; such a limitation would be irresponsibility. The nature of free responsibility rules out any legal regulation of when and to what extent human vocation and responsibility entail breaking out of the ‘definite field of activity.' This can happen only after seriously considering one's immediate vocational obligations, the dangers of encroaching on the responsibilities of others, and finally the total picture of the issue at hand. It will then be my free responsibility in response to the call of Jesus Christ that leads me in one direction or the other. Responsibility in a vocation follows the call of Christ alone." (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, "The Place of Responsibility," in Schwehn & Bass, 110)

"The work of a Beethoven and the work of a charwoman become spiritual on precisely the same condition, that of being offered to God, of being done humbly ‘as to the Lord.'" (C. S. Lewis, "Learning in War-Time," in Schwehn & Bass, 125)

"The official Church wastes time and energy, and, moreover, commits sacrilege, in demanding that secular workers should neglect their proper vocation in order to do Christian work -- by which she means ecclesiastical work. The only Christian work is good work well done. Let the Church see to it that the workers are Christian people and do their work well, as to God; then all the work will be Christian work, whether it is Church embroidery, or sewage-farming." (Dorothy L. Sayers, "Why Work?" in Schwehn & Bass, 195)

4. In particular, what are the special temptations and rewards of a calling to a secular vocation, and how can I navigate them?

"Gregory says, ‘Those who wish to hold the fortress of contemplation, must first of all train in the camp of action. Thus after careful study they will learn whether they no longer wrong their neighbor, whether they bear with equanimity the wrongs their neighbors do to them, whether their soul is neither overcome with joy in the presence of temporal goods, nor cast down with too great a sorrow when those goods are withdrawn. In this way they will know when they withdraw within themselves, in order to explore spiritual things, whether they no longer carry with them the shadows of the things corporeal, or, if these follow them, whether they prudently drive them away.'" (Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Q. 182, a.2: "Whether the contemplative life is hindered by the active life?" In Placher, 159.)

"The brothers should wait on one another. No one is to be excused from kitchen duty unless he is ill or he is engaged in a task of greater import, for he can thus obtain greater charity and commendation. . . . Everyone's feet are to be washed by the monk finishing his week's service and the one starting his. . . . If conditions dictate that they labor in the fields, they should not be grieved, for they are truly monks when they must live by manual labor, as did our fathers and the apostles." (Benedict of Nursia,The Rule of St. Benedict, in Placher, 130-31.)

"The religious state [that is, the monastic life] is directed to the attainment of the perfection of charity, consisting principally in the love of God and secondarily in the love of our neighbor. . . . If their neighbor be in need, they should attend to his affairs out of charity. . . . Monks are forbidden to occupy themselves with secular business from motives of avarice, but not from motives of charity. . . . To occupy oneself with secular business on account of anothers need is . . . charity." (Thomas Aquinas,Summa Theologiae, Q. 187, a.2: "Whether it is lawful for religious to occupy themselves with secular business?" In Placher, 174-5.)

"Boswell records that Dr. Johnson once said of John Wesley, the great Methodist preacher who logged thousands of miles on horseback while traveling around England to preache, ‘John Wesley's conversation is good, but he is never at leisure. He is always obliged to go at a certain hour. This is very disagreeable to a man who loves to fold his legs and have out his talk, as I do.' . . . Serious commitment to vocation means that one lives to work, and we should not forget that it is also possible to choose -- as some have -- to work to live, while seeking delight and fulfillment in the bond of friendship." (Gilbert Meilaender, "Friendship and Vocation," in Schwehn & Bass, 231).

"Our modern notion . . . that the point of work is to give meaning, purpose, and fulfillment to life is a degradation of the calling. . . . In the modern world, work has certainly begun to have the status of an idol. In such circumstances we need to reassert other aspects of our theological tradition. Karl Barth . . . directed a much needed polemic against the idol of work, [saying that to make work our source of meaning is to forget that] ‘there are children and the sick and elderly and others for whom vocation in this sense can be only the object either of expectation and preparation or of recollection.' Indeed . . . that Sabbath rest, as it even now recurs in the weekly cycle of Christian life, is already testimony to the fact that work offers no final fulfillment for human existence." (Gilbert Meilaender, "Friendship and Vocation," Schwehn & Bass, 238-240)

"Those who are enticed by vocational necessities to keep their personal commitments tentative become increasingly isolated and increasingly tempted to try to ‘live to work.' In such a world, as William May has perceptively noted, ‘the Bell Telephone Company and the Hallmark card industry grow rich on the conscience of Americans uneasy about their overextended personal loyalties.'" (Gilbert Meilaender, "Friendship and Vocation," Schwehn & Bass, 238-241)

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