Friday, April 03, 2009

Thoughts on Calling and Vocation

This past Wednesday I was honored to give the keynote address for the Center for Faith and Vocation's annual dinner at Butler University, my alma mater. I can't post my speech on the blog, since it included some anecdotes that are not my intellectual property, but I would like to reflect on one idea I shared there:

The folks at the Center asked me to speak on the subjects of calling and vocation. Recently I've reread Thomas Merton's Seven Storey Mountain, and while I love the thoughtfulness of his prose and the gentleness of spirit that comes with the contemplative life, I've realized how much I used to think like Father Thomas when it comes to the subject of calling, and how much good evolving away from that type of thinking has done me.

Thomas Merton reflected back on his early years through the lens of a drastic and profound conversion to Catholicism. In fact, he wrote his autobiography in his cell at the Abbey of Gethsemani. So his take on the subject of one's calling from God is completely formed by his robustly Augustinian form of Roman Catholicism. Augustine owed a great deal intellectually to the "pagan philosopher" (his term, not mine) Plato, from whom Augustine learned to be very dualistic in his view of the world.

Augustine's Platonic dualism led him to define pretty much everything in oppositional, either/or categories. Things were either good or evil. One either pursued the things of body or the things of the soul. And one either had a specific, definite calling from God to a vocation, or one did not. Thomas Merton shared this view of calling and it is evident throughout his writing.

I remember thinking for a long time that I had to figure out whether God was calling me or not. That's how I heard it talked about in the church and by most people. But in college a professor of mine introduced me to Paul Tillich by having me read Dynamics of Faith, where Tillich refutes the idea of faith being a dualistic, either/or proposition. Everyone has faith in something, according to Tillich, and the question is in what we are ultimately concerned.

So I began to think that if faith isn't an either/or proposition, maybe calling isn't either. Maybe it wasn't a question of whether God is calling me or not, but a question of what God is calling me to. Specifically, when it comes to the question of vocation, what kind of job will allow me to live with integrity to who God is calling me to be?

A colleague of mine once told me about a special service at his church when he was growing up where anybody who felt God was calling them could come up for a special blessing. Previously he had talked about his sense of calling with his pastor, telling him that he felt called to serve God, but he knew preaching wasn't for him. So when he came forward for the blessing, his pastor turned him away, saying, "God only calls people to the preaching ministry." This person later ended up getting ordained as a deacon in the United Methodist Church and served as the Director of the National Christian Educators Fellowship. So much for his pastor's dualistic, either/or view of calling.

Over the years since I've gotten a clearer sense that God is calls me to preach, teach, and write, so the job of a local church pastor is a pretty good way to live out that calling. But I know lots of people who are living out very faithful lives in all sorts of vocations, and frankly their example is probably more powerful than mine, because they serve in places people don't often expect to meet God.

I hope that people who are exploring what they want to do with their life will view the question of calling not as an either/or proposition, because doing so leads to a lot of anxiety about getting a particular question right or wrong, and the possibility that the wrong answer could have eternal consequences. If instead we believe that God calls all people to live faithfully wherever they are, then we can choose a vocation based not on whether it's right or wrong, but on how we can best live out our gifts and graces. In doing so we will find our life's calling.


gavin richardson said...

liar! no one reads seven story mountain twice. its like 700 pages &:~)

beth said...

Methinks that perhaps you are a bit too premature in your assessment of Merton, based on his 1st published book.

Merton was still quite a young man when he wrote 7 Story Mtn, and yes, he was very somewhat rigidly "religious" in his perspective. He was also a relatively recently converted Catholic, and still quite zealous at the time that he wrote his autobiography.

BUt his thought did mature as he remained in the monastery, and it doesn't seem quite fair, to me, to characterize it as "dualistic". Merton, himself, came to be embarrassed by much of his earlier writings.

I'm very glad that you have come to see your own calling as one among a larger calling to all of us.

Matt Kelley said...

Your critique is very fair. I haven't read any of Merton's other writings. That being said, I'm not critiquing the older, more mature Merton. I'm critiquing the Merton of 7SM, and the thoroughly Augustinian view of vocation he held at the time.

Thanks for reading. Take care!