This post originally appeared in July 2015 as part of a series I began (but have yet to finish) on the Emerging Scholars’ Network Blog. You can see the original post here.
In my last post I argued that so long as Christians’ talk about “finding one’s calling” is held captive by the modern American idea that self-realization only happens by way of unfettered, individual self-expression, our talk of vocation will be far-removed from Christ’s call to live lives of self-sacrificial love. This way of thinking about vocation is inherently self-absorbed and will, more often than not, be blind to our social responsibilities before a hurting world. Instead, I argued that we can better think about vocation by taking seriously both Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s claim that we find our vocation within the parameters of our concrete responsibilities to God and neighbor, and Saint Augustine’s famous dictum, “Love, and do what thou wilt.” These two dicta, I argued, help us to see how Christ’s call to self-sacrificial love constitutes both the burning center and the outer limit of our vocations.
At first blush, love and responsibility may seem like opposing concepts. Love sounds sentimental while “concrete responsibility” sounds downright stoical. But deep love and concrete responsibility, in fact, go hand-in-hand. Nowhere is this clearer than in the family. On my wedding day I vowed “to love and to cherish” my wife “until death do us part.” Out of love I vowed to love her so long as we both shall live, which is to say that I am now responsible for loving her. Wedding vows are the clearest pointers to the deep truth that love is more than a feeling; that love is about more than being “in love”; namely, that love is a disposition towards the good of the other. Love in this more robust and active sense is doing and wanting and working for what is best for the beloved. Should the romance wear off and our passions cool, that does not change the fact that we are still responsible to continue to love one another in this more robust way.
So it is with God and our neighbors: Christ calls us to this more robust, active sort of love for God and for our fellow human beings. And this more active sort of love sits cheek by jowl with concrete responsibility and responsible action. This is why Saint Augustine could so confidently say, “Love, and do what thou wilt.” The person devoted to and shaped by this more robust, active sort of love for God and neighbor, will neither willingly shirk his or her concrete responsibilities nor collapse into a narcissistic quest for self-satisfaction through self-expression. But what does any of this have to do with life in the university? How does any of this help me to discern my calling? And doesn’t this way of framing things suggest that we should all go into missionary or humanitarian work?
Culture Making in Times of Crisis
It seemed like the whole world was on fire when C.S. Lewis stepped into the pulpit of the Church of Saint Mary the Virgin in Oxford in the autumn of 1939. Only a few weeks earlier Germany had invaded Poland, provoking declarations of war from Great Britain and France, igniting the great conflagration that would be the Second World War. Across the United Kingdom out of a sense of duty and urgency young men were enlisting in the armed services and citizens were preparing for the war effort. And Lewis, the great Oxford don, had been tasked with addressing a room full of anxious young men beginning their autumn term at Oxford University. He began:
A University is a society for the pursuit of learning. As students, you will be expected to make yourselves, or to start making yourselves, in to what the Middle Ages called clerks: into philosophers, scientists, scholars, critics, or historians. And at first sight this seems to be an odd thing to do during a great war. What is the use of beginning a task which we have so little chance of finishing? Or, even if we ourselves should happen not to be interrupted by death or military service, why should we—indeed how can we—continue to take an interest in these placid occupations when the lives of our friends and the liberties of Europe are in the balance? Is it not like fiddling while Rome burns?
In the face of global crisis, higher education can seem not merely frivolous but unconscionably irresponsible. But Lewis points out that, if we are consistent, we Christians must recognize that we have always lived in a world riven by a contest, the stakes of which vastly exceed any earthly war, namely, the contest between heaven and hell for the eternal souls of men and women. “The moment we do so,” says Lewis, “we can see that every Christian who comes to a university must at all times face a question compared with which the questions raised by the war are relatively unimportant.” Lewis continued:
He must ask himself how it is right, or even psychologically possible, for creatures who are every moment advancing either to heaven or to hell, to spend any fraction of the little time allowed them in this world on such comparative trivialities as literature or art, mathematics or biology. If human culture can stand up to that, it can stand up to anything.
Whatever reasons we might offer for pursuing higher learning and higher culture must stand up in the light of eternity.
Lewis begins his apology for continuing the work of culture making (to borrow Andy Crouch’s very apt phrase) even in times of crisis by observing that, “Life has never been normal.” As a matter of fact, every age is “full of cries, alarms, difficulties, emergencies” which call into question the importance of learning, of art, of science. “Plausible reasons have never been lacking for putting off all merely cultural activities until some imminent danger has been averted or some crying injustice put right.” However, says Lewis, “humanity long ago chose to neglect those plausible reasons. They wanted knowledge and beauty now, and would not wait for the suitable moment that never comes.” Why? Because the human drive for culture and culture-making “is not panache; it is our nature.” It is a facet of what it means to bear the divine image. To deny it for long, even in states of emergency, is to undermine our very humanity and to abandon part of what makes our souls worth saving.
In fact, the human work of culture making is precisely part of what it means for us to participate in God’s mission of extending His reign and building His City—the missio Dei I described in an earlier post. But this is not to say that all culture making expands the Kingdom. “For,” as Paul says, “For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.” And “each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done.” (1 Corinthians 3:11, 13, ESV) Nevertheless, culture that can be squared with the chief cornerstone may indeed find a place in the New Jerusalem.
Vocational Discernment and Creative Fidelity
How, then, do I discern what my vocation is? What is Christ calling me to do with my life? Here again, Lewis is helpful:
[It is not] for anyone a mere toss-up whether he should sweep rooms or compose symphonies. A mole must dig to the glory of God and a cock must crow. We are members of one body, but differentiated members, each with his own vocation. A man’s upbringing, his talents, his circumstances, are usually a tolerable index of his vocation. If our parents have sent us to Oxford, if our country allows us to remain there, this is prima facie evidence that the life which we, at any rate, can best lead to the glory of God at present is the learned life. (my italics)
Vocational discernment is not an introspective quest to find “the real me” (as in expressive individualism). It is more a matter of taking stock of where God has placed you, what God has given you, and how God has enabled you to do good in the world. It is a matter of discerning how your gifts, talents, passions, credentials, opportunities, and relationships might be used to bless others.
From this point of view, for most of us there is probably a wide range of things that we could do to live lives of love and responsibility. The doctrine of vocation is not a doctrine of divine micromanagement. God gives us gifts and expects us to use them for His glory, but He usually does not dictate precisely how we are to do so.
Consider Jesus’s Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30). The master goes away, entrusting vast sums of money to his servants (a talent was roughly twenty years’ worth of wages) “each according to his ability.” The master expects some return on his investment in his servants, but he does not specify for them how they should invest the funds. The master leaves it up to them to use their best judgment, to be creative, and to choose well. One of my seminary professors, Stephen Taylor (now teaching at Biblical Theological Seminary in Hatfield, PA) used to say of this parable that the master expects his servants to exercise “creative fidelity,” and so it is with God and us. God grants us gifts and passions, he sets our lives on trajectories, he blesses us with opportunities, and He expects us to use them for His glory and for the common good. But He leaves it to us to be creatively faithful with His blessings.
We are like collaborative artists, co-creating our lives alongside God, the Master Artist and the supplier of all our materials. But the work is truly collaborative and we truly have a role in crafting our lives. Vocation is our commission to faithfully exercise our creativity to make ourselves and our stories into something beautiful for God. Formation is the work at hand.
What do you feel strongly called to?
What are some areas where you are not sure what your calling is? What are next steps you could take to start finding out?
Are there any areas where your calling right now requires committed love through difficulty? What can you pray for and do to grow in committed love for your neighbors during this time?
Oh Lord, let us love our neighbors and answer Your callings faithfully. Even when it is difficult to be obedient, let us pursue You wholeheartedly in our vocations. If we lack wisdom, grant us knowledge and discernment to know what callings to pursue and how. If we lack courage, grant us strength. And in all things let the joy of the Lord be our strength. In Jesus’ Name, amen.