Ecology of Vocation: Recasting Calling in a New Planetary Era
“California’s Apocalyptic Fires”
“Drought Conditions Expected to Worsen and Spread Farther”
“Flooded Canadians Fear the Next Disaster”
“Between Heat and Floods, England Endures Extremes”
“Europe’s Floods are Latest Signs of Climate Crisis”
This short sample of headlines from articles in the New York Times from the last few years provides evidence that we are living in a new planetary era—a much more dangerous era. Even our language is changing, as it should, from climate change to climate crisis. Hence Kiara Jorgenson’s new book comes at the right time.
After laying out in chapter one the shape of discourse in Christian ecological ethics with a survey of various positions, in chapter two Jorgenson explores H. Richard Niebuhr’s responsibility ethic as a potentially useful way of thinking about vocation. She then in chapter three discusses the views of Luther and Calvin and what is known as the democratization of vocation, that is, a view of vocation that includes all Christians, not just priests or ministers. She follows that in chapter four with an insightful discussion of how, in the work of those who came after Luther and Calvin, calling was detached from any Caller and vocation was reduced to work. In chapter five Jorgenson draws on the contemporary writing of Paul Santmire, Sally McFague, and Wendell Berry (Lutheran, Reformed, and Baptist respectively) to reimagine a robust Christian understanding of vocation as paradox, resistance, and affection. Informed by these “voices in the wilderness,” in the final chapter Jorgenson puts forward her own understanding of vocation, retrieving what is best from the Reformers and reclaiming distinctively Christian concepts of calling. Her idea of vocation includes five key virtues: humility, restraint, wisdom, justice, and hope. A short epilogue and an extensive bibliography conclude the book.
There are many good reasons to read Jorgenson’s fine new book. My list includes the following. It has a clear and compelling thesis, namely, that given the realities of the climate crisis, “the Christian church can and must play an integral role in the emergence of such progressive change,” namely, “change in the ways we move ourselves around, the spaces we live in, the jobs we perform, the food we eat” (1). It uses more accurate terminology, e.g., “ecological” rather than “environmental” (3), signifying that we humans are part of the home planet we share with our non-human neighbors rather than assuming we are somehow outside the non-human world. It clearly unpacks what vocation meant for Luther and Calvin (chapter 3) and offers an enlightening explanation of how vocation after Luther and Calvin came to be construed as calling without a Caller (chapter 4). It honestly acknowledges that many Protestant churches have neglected to serve and protect creation (49), while making a promising suggestion that we redefine neighbor to include “the other-than-human” (52). It emphasizes eco-justice and how so-called “social justice issues” such as racism and sexism are intimately connected to ecological issues such as air and water pollution (52–53). It provides an insightful discussion of the important work of Paul Santmire, Sally McFague, and Wendell Berry (chapter 5). It offers a welcome argument for why virtues such as humility, restraint, wisdom, justice, and hope are integral to vocation (chapter 6). There is much insight and wisdom in this book.
But perhaps the most important reason to read Ecology of Vocation is the timeliness of this book. We are in fact now living in a new planetary era, and we need to rethink what that means for our lives, not least how it affects our understanding of vocation or calling. Jorgenson’s focus is on “the North American church’s fractured and failed attempts to practically address contemporary environmental challenges” and thus she “explores how and why a dialogical approach to ecological ethics vis-a-vis the Protestant doctrine of vocation provides practical help for the North American church seeking to better fulfill its shared ecological calling” (2). Her argument, hinted at above, is that “a critical retrieval and reformation of the rich and dynamic Protestant doctrine [of vocation] can give form and language to a practical ethic mediated by our very creatureliness.” More exactly, “vocation provides ethical language with its emphasis on right relationship over and above right behavior or right intentions” and this helps us to “enact personal and corporate environmental responsibility in this anthropocentric age” (2).
As with any good book there are questions prompted by various claims. What does it mean that “religious creativity plays a critical role” in helping us to “transcend biological limitations, or at the very least, make us more aware of them” (52)? Is it even possible for us to transcend our biological limitations? Assuming it is possible, is it wise? Isn’t our collective human failure to acknowledge our finitude precisely one of the problems? While there are various similarities and differences as to how Luther and Calvin conceive of vocation, a common criticism is that the Protestant doctrine of vocation is too individualistic. So how can Lutherans and Calvinists draw on their respective traditions to address the problem of individualism? How does Paul Santmire’s claim that Christians are called to anticipate the reign of God joyfully (107) connect with Sally McFague’s understanding of vocation as resistance (113)? And how do we resist the all too common reduction of vocation to “being your best self” or “following your passion”?
Beyond the questions, I have one complaint. Employing any schema of categories to classify viewpoints is dangerous. I refer particularly to Jorgenson’s discussion in chapter one of my own view as found in For the Beauty of the Earth.1 Let me be frank. My approach to ecological theology and ethics is placed in the wrong category and thus my perspective is misrepresented. My ecological ethic does not belong in the stewardship sub-category within the larger category of anthropocentrism. Indeed, in many of my writings I argue against using the term stewardship and criticize anthropocentrism, as does Jorgenson. If my perspective were to be placed in one of Jorgenson’s “frameworks,” it would more accurately belong with Juergen Moltmann in trinitarian theocentrism. In short, I have written much on these topics and where I have pitched my tent in the landscape of ecological ethics is, I think, quite clear. Ecology of Vocation is a work of fine scholarship, so I am baffled as to why there is this misrepresentation.
Ecology of Vocation is a timely book for our new planetary era. May it challenge us to rethink vocation and reimagine what our calling is in this time of climate crisis.