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Hearing Vocation Differently: Meaning, Purpose, and Identity in the Multi-Faith Academy

David S. Cunningham, ed.
Published by Oxford University Press in 2019

Clark Kerr, former president of the University of California, once quipped that universities have become “a series of individual faculty entrepreneurs held together by a common grievance over parking.”1 While playful, the quip gives voice to what can be called a crisis of coherence in higher education, an absence of broad, unifying values and commitments that hold the whole enterprise together—what the uni in university is supposed to signify. In light of this crisis and other frequently cited challenges—such as skyrocketing costs and diminishing public confidence—some even suggest that college-level education is an endangered species. That may be too alarmist, but there are certainly serious questions about the purpose and viability of the college experience, and educators continue to ask critical questions like this: How might we reimagine and reinvigorate higher education for a new era?

According to NetVUE (the Network for Vocation in Undergraduate Education), the language of vocation or “calling” holds a key for addressing these challenges.2 Vocation in this context does not simply refer to employment, but rather careful and collaborative attention to the purposes and direction of one’s life overall. When higher education is reimagined in terms of vocational exploration, the argument goes, it unleashes new levels of meaning for the college experience and challenges reductionist understandings that are narrowly individualistic, secular, consumerist, and compartmentalized. Whatever else might be said, this vision seems to be gaining momentum, at least among a wide array of private colleges and universities. Since its launch in 2009, NetVUE now boasts more than 300 member institutions and an impressive menu of conferences, grant opportunities, consultation services, electronic resources, scholarly publications, and more.3

In that context, Hearing Vocation Differently: Meaning, Purpose, and Identity in the Multi-Faith Academy is the third and most recent installment in NetVUE’s series of edited volumes published by Oxford University Press.4 While each of the volumes explores vocational themes from different angles, this third volume does so in light of the remarkable increases in religious diversity that now characterize higher education.

The volume does more, however, than merely contribute to the literature on religion in the academy. Rather, it zones in on one of the primary conceptual challenges of the entire vocational project. In the volume’s introduction, editor and NetVUE director, David Cunningham, identifies this central challenge by acknowledging two basic realities. One is that the North American academy is more religiously and philosophically diverse than ever before. The other is that the language of vocation and calling that NetVUE employs has its origins in Christian (and especially Protestant) theological traditions. When considering these realities in tandem, it is reasonable to ask whether vocation, a concept with specific Christian origins, is adequate or even appropriate for the religiously diverse academy of the twenty-first century. Is the concept inherently sectarian and only pertinent within a Christian paradigm? Or can vocation be used in ways that simultaneously honors and transcends its historical origins, while offering higher education a unifying center for a religiously diverse era?

NetVUE banks on the latter, vocation’s wider capacities. In fact, if NetVUE’s broader claims of educational renewal are to be taken seriously, a compelling case must be made for the concept’s wider capacities. And that seems to be the challenge and goal of Hearing Vocation Differently. The result is a fascinating collection of essays that invites us to reimagine higher education in vocational terms for a “multi-faith” academy.

Does the volume make a compelling case? Readers, of course, will have to assess that for themselves, but here are a few things to consider in the process.

First, if a case for vocation’s multi-faith capacities is to be effective, religiously diverse voices must weigh in. Accordingly, the volume’s list of contributing scholars includes those who identify as Jewish, Hindu, Christian, Muslim, and Buddhist, among others, as well as those who identify as non-religious or embrace “multiple religious belonging.” In addition to personal diversities, the contributors also appropriately represent a wide swath of institutional contexts, from secular to pluralist to specifically confessional.

It is also significant to consider how the volume came together. Unlike many edited volumes, the book does not consist of independently written essays that were submitted by authors who are otherwise strangers to one another. Rather, the preface describes a year-long, shared experience in which the contributors interacted with one another, and discussed and debated their ideas and drafts along the way. This is also represented by the fact that each chapter is followed by a reflective response written by one of the other authors. All said, the book’s content is the product of the kind of pedagogy it promotes: collaborative, dialogical, and multi-faith.

In terms of content, while unsurprisingly diverse, the volume’s chapters are consistent in their quality and relevance. Some present specific religious perspectives on vocational themes such as those offered in Younus Mirza’s “Doubt as an Integral Part of Calling: The Qur’anic Story of Joseph,” David Cunningham’s “Gracious Reception: A Christian Case for Hearing Vocation Differently,” and Anantanand Rambachan’s “Renunciation of Vocation and Renunciation within Vocation: Contributions from the Bhagavadgita.” Other chapters more broadly address the ways religious diversity contributes to personal formation, as in Rachel Mikva’s “The Change a Difference Makes: Formation of Self in the Encounter with Diversity,” or how diversity enriches campus life, as in Florence Amamoto’s “Response-ability in Practice: Discerning Vocation through Campus Relationships.”

Another strength of the volume is that it does not attempt to minimize religious differences in order to make vocation work as a unifying theme. On the contrary, it explores how positive explorations of vocation can happen even in the midst of religious incompatibilities, as highlighted by Noah Silverman’s aptly titled chapter, “Called by our Conflicting Allegiances.” Such variety is also evident when comparing chapters that explore vocation from within a specific religious tradition (as cited above) with those that represent the fluid “spaces between” traditions, as in Trina Janiec Jones’s “Reviving Sheila: Listening to the Call of Multiple Religious Belonging,” or chapters that explore the themes in more purely secular terms, as in Matthew Sayers’s “The Story of Me: A Myth-understanding of Vocation.”

While the chapters are loosely bundled into four thematic sections, the diversity of content and perspective can still create dissonance for readers. And yet again, that seems to be part of the point. The collection is not presented as a linear argument or a singular story about vocation, as much as an exploration of the concept’s expansiveness. Even so, as diverse as the content is, the authors themselves are described by Cunningham as sharing a common commitment to vocational reflection and as being “convinced of the benefits of this work” (1). In other words, the cumulative claim of Hearing Vocation Differently is that the language of vocation is both coherent enough and capacious enough to enable different institutions and diverse communities to identify overlapping purposes, and collaborate meaningfully about educational formation.

Given the context of this review, let me now offer three brief and overlapping reflections for why the book is important for those of us committed to Christian higher education.

First, the twenty-first century is a time of dramatic shifts and transitions with regard to religion. While it is difficult to keep up with the changes and complexities, at least one thing is clear: Religions are intermingling more now than at any point in history. That being the case, we as Christian educators need to step up our game in order to prepare students for meaningful and collaborative service in a religiously diverse world. Hearing Vocation Differently is a good resource for doing so.

Second, the volume also challenges us to do more than merely prepare Christians for a world out there. The fact is that the world’s diversities—diverse peoples and worldviews—are increasingly represented even on our most religiously homogeneous campuses, reminding us that the world “out there” is always “right here.” The book, therefore, can help us recognize and listen to voices already in our midst.

Third, the volume invites us to consider how encounters with religious diversity, when properly guided, can shape our understandings of education and the Christian faith itself. The nineteenth-century scholar of religion, Max Müller, famously asserted that the person who “knows one, knows none.”5 In other words, we only understand ourselves and our own worldviews to the extent that we are able to positively engage other worldviews and those who hold them. Not only does that make good social and philosophical sense, it also resonates with a faith that claims that God’s Spirit is active throughout the world and that all humans reflect God’s image. We are thus challenged to think of Christian education as a willingness and even a mandate to continually open ourselves, in critical thought and hospitable practice, to the capaciousness of God’s world.

In conclusion, it is worth considering how the vision offered in Hearing Vocation Differently might be received on different Christian college campuses. The fact is that the Christian consensus of earlier eras (if such a thing ever actually existed) is not coming back to Western societies, and different institutions respond to that reality differently. One alternative response that has currency on many campuses today is what we might call the bunker mentality: circle the ideological wagons, respond to diversity by speaking more than listening, or even issue a call to arms in the proverbial culture wars. Clearly, Hearing Vocation Differently presents and models a very different kind of vision, one that offers Christian educators a way to view current realities as ordained by God, as a divine invitation to rigorous, mutual, and even risky interactions with and for a diverse world. And it calls Christian institutions to provide the spaces, opportunities, and theological resources for wise discernment in the process.

There are, of course, shades to be navigated between the bunker mentality and more open dialogical postures. Nevertheless, more than the denominational or creedal distinctions of the past, the fault line between these two broad tendencies—as it plays out between and within our institutions—is proving to be a primary characteristic of Christian higher education in the twenty-first century. That being the case, Hearing Vocation Differently is an excellent resource for those who want a nuanced exploration of hospitable and dialogical approaches to undergraduate education.


  1. Clark Kerr, The Uses of the University, 5th ed. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001), 15. In this context, Kerr also introduces the term “multiversity.”
  2. See “Network for Vocation in Undergraduate Education (NetVUE),” The Council of Independent Colleges, NetVUE is administered by The Council of Independent Colleges (CIC).
  3. In full disclosure, I am a part of these efforts as co-host of NetVUE’s podcast: “Callings: Conversations on College, Career, and a Life Well-lived.” See
  4. The first volume (David S. Cunningham, ed., At This Time and In This Place: Vocation and Higher Education [New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2016]) introduces vocation as a theme and explores its pedagogical implications. The second volume (David S. Cunningham, ed., Vocation Across the Academy: A New Vocabulary for Higher Education [New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2017]) focuses on vocational reflection across different academic and professional disciplines.
  5. Friedrich Max Müller, Introduction to the Science of Religion (London, UK: Longmans, Green, and Company 1873), 16.

John D. Barton

John D. Barton, Professor of Teaching of Religion and Director of the Center for Faith and Learning, Pepperdine University.