I am grateful to the editors of Christian Scholar’s Review for their invitation to guest edit a special issue of the journal, focusing on vocation and higher education. Although vocation is an important theological concept, it has had a complicated historical sojourn; it therefore requires some unpacking. At various times and in various contexts, the words the words vocation, vocational, and calling have referred to (a) persons in holy orders (sometimes exclusively); (b) people who practice a trade, as opposed to those in other kinds of careers; (c) those in what are sometimes referred to as “helping professions,” such as teachers, nurses, and others who are regularly underpaid, underappreciated, and expected to do their work as a kind of sacrifice; or (d) absolutely everyone.
Hence, the essays in this issue are designed, in part, to investigate the various contours of the concepts of vocation and calling, and to consider their significance for higher education—especially (but not exclusively) in church-related institutions. How is the language of vocation being understood in these contexts? What assumptions are being made about who, precisely, can be said to “have” a vocation or a calling? Does this call come from God, from other people, or from the world at large? Is “vocational discernment” something accessible to everyone, or is it only available to the privileged few? Does one discern a vocation because of an interior, emotionally-charged feeling, or is it capable of rational consideration and criticism? Is “having a calling” necessarily a good thing, with positive outcomes for one’s life, or is it just as often a recipe for excessive expectations, overwork, and burnout? These are the questions that are being asked, debated, and answered (at least in part) by those who are writing and speaking about vocation and higher education today.
Higher education is, in fact, the focus of the lead essay in this issue. Its author is Nicole (Niki) Johnson, who teaches religious studies and peace studies at the University of Mount Union. She believes that vocational exploration is a key component of a liberal arts education, and that such an education might be best understood through the category of freedom. The “liberating arts,” as she calls them, are those that help free students from certain kinds of shackles—culturally narrow perspectives, historical myopia, hyperindividualism—and also free them for a certain kind of life: a life of curiosity, of interdisciplinary engagement, and most importantly, a life for others. On this last point, Johnson’s theological insights come to the fore; she is particularly interested in analogies between the church and the academy—including the ways that mistakes in one realm tend to reflect mistakes in the other. While she makes it clear that the “liberating arts” can provide many benefits, she focuses on the ways that these disciplines and methods can form students in positive habits of mind and soul—especially if they are offered with space and support for those students to think reflectively about their many callings in life.
The next three essays in this issue offer scholarly inquiries into the role of vocation from the perspective of particular disciplines. They are written by scholars in three different academic divisions (social sciences, humanities, and natural sciences), demonstrating how their own fields of study can contribute to a broader and deeper consideration of vocational exploration and discernment.
The first of the three is by Bryan Dik, professor of psychology at Colorado State University, who has assembled an impressive track-record of work on the sociological and psychological elements of vocation. In this essay, he introduces us to the wide-ranging social scientific research on the topic, with particular emphasis on the frequency with which people describe their work as a calling (higher than one might expect) and the positive outcomes that are correlated with that description (better than one might expect). He also points to some of the complexities and inadequacies of this research, and outlines ways that it could be improved through further study. At the end of the essay, he transitions to a thoughtful theological discussion of the ways that a Christian perspective on vocation does or does not line up with certain aspects of the current research.
The second of these disciplinary essays is by a historian, Daniel Wasserman-Soler, who taught for many years at Alma College. He observes that Martin Luther’s outsized presence in the field of vocation studies can sometimes obscure other earlier writers who thought deeply about the possibility of a vocation for the laity. The essay focuses on the work of a 13th-century lay Franciscan, Ramon Llull, who envisioned the possibility of lay people entering into serious dialogue with one another and thinking deeply and productively about religious belief—and even about dialogue among religions. In the final third of his essay, Wasserman-Soler probes the implications of this account for our current understanding of vocation in the higher education context, with examples from (and implications for) his own teaching at Alma and for his current position as director of the Lumen Christi Institute in Chicago.
The third discipline-specific essay turns to the natural sciences. Amy Santas, professor of biology at Muskingum University, observes that we teach the natural sciences in ways that demand terminological and conceptual mastery but leave out some of the things that future scientists and health professionals need most. These missing elements can be given greater attention when vocational reflection is made an integral part of the science curriculum. Doing so can help students develop the habits of mind and heart that will make them good at their work, and perhaps also avoid some of the mistakes that researchers and medical personnel have made in the past. Santas identifies these errors as stemming from the “othering” of those different from us, from an excessive focus on mastery of scientific concepts, and from an individualistic approach to science education. In place of these tendencies, she proposes an ethic of attentiveness and embrace, a commitment to cultural humility, and the creation of a culture of belonging. Throughout the essay, she is in dialogue with the work of Willie James Jennings, who describes some of these same problems (and solutions) with respect to theological education. Education—in science as in theology—calls us to weave our own fragments together with those of colleagues and peers, in the service of embrace, humility, and belonging.
The penultimate essay in this collection is written by Tom Perrin, who served for many years as executive vice president for academic affairs and dean of the faculty at Huntingdon College. Perrin has been heavily involved in the development of a series of required courses that focus on vocation exploration, which has become a hallmark of the general education program at his institution. This essay focuses on the typical student responses to a specific assignment: an explication of Charles Taylor’s critique of “the ethics of authenticity.” Perrin observes that students tend to be more enthusiastic about the celebration of authenticity that Taylor critiques rather than his arguments against this approach. Their responses to Taylor’s critique provide a window on the assumptions about vocation and calling that many students bring with them to college; this in turn reveals a great deal about the contours of certain Christian practices in the United States. Perrin’s essay is simultaneously a thoughtful diagnosis of our students’ preconceptions, an offer of an alternative perspective, and a description of some of the pedagogical techniques that are needed to help students achieve a clearer understanding of vocation in general, and of their own vocations in particular.
The final essay—a kind of closing peroration—is offered by Paul Wadell. A Christian ethicist of considerable renown, Wadell brings to his work on vocation a great deal of appreciation for the tradition of the virtues, employing that approach as a means of encouraging us to think about our own vocations and to help our students explore theirs. In dialogue with Pope Francis’s recent book Let Us Dream, Wadell describes how faculty members and staff can contribute positively to the lives of their students and support the exploration of their callings. Throughout the essay, he suggests that the best kind of life is one in which we are not only called, but in which we are on call—ready to respond to the needs of others. A beloved teacher of hundreds of students across many decades (and now an emeritus professor of theology and religious studies at St. Norbert College), Wadell knows the undergraduate setting well and is perfectly positioned to offer this final appeal for the significance of vocational reflection in higher education today.
The literature on vocation has grown immensely in the last twenty years, buoyed particularly by the work of Lilly Endowment Inc., which has given hundreds of institutions of independent higher education the opportunity to develop programming for students, and professional development for faculty members and staff, focusing on the work of vocational exploration. I hope that the essays and reviews in this issue of Christian Scholar’s Review will serve as an additional contribution to that growing body of scholarly literature, and that more and more readers—across the academic disciplines and professional fields—will engage in this work and find ways to support their students’ work of reflection and discernment. Vocation is a very old concept, and one with a complicated history; but it is, I believe, an idea whose time has come (again), and one that can be ever more thoroughly integrated into higher education. Helping to achieve that goal is a high calling indeed.
Our book review section continues with the theme of vocation:
Joshua Sweeden (Nazarene Theological Seminary) provides a review essay on the perils of viewing vocation as “the encrustations of heroism, certainty, permanence, and importance that conceal its more fundamental (and far less daunting) purposes” through the work of Susan L. Maros, Calling in Context: Social Location and Vocational Formation, Gordon T. Smith, Your Calling Here and Now: Making Sense of Vocation, and, Brent Waters, Common Callings and Ordinary Virtues: Christian Ethics for Everyday Life.
John D. Barton (Pepperdine University) reviews Hearing Vocation Differently: Meaning, Purpose, and Identity in the Multi-Faith Academy, edited by David S. Cunningham.
Steven Bouma-Prediger (Hope College) reviews Ecology of Vocation: Recasting Calling in a New Planetary Era by Kiara Jorgenson.
Krista E. Hughes (Newberry College) reviews Living Vocationally: The Journey of the Called Life by Paul J. Wadell and Charles R. Pinches.
Larry G. Locke (University of Mary Hardin – Baylor) reviews The Promise of Social Enterprise: A Theological Exploration of Faithful Economic Practice by Mark Sampson.
Esteban E. Loustaunau (Assumption University) reviews The Purpose Gap: Empowering Communities of Color to Find Meaning and Thrive by Patrick B. Reyes.
Robert Pampel (St. Louis University) reviews Neighbor Love Through Fearful Days: Finding Purpose and Meaning in a Time of Crisis by Jason A. Mahn.
Hannah J. Stolze (Baylor University) reviews Redeeming Work: A Guide to Discovering God’s Calling for Your Career by Bryan J. Dik.