Living Vocationally: The Journey of the Called Life
“To find a calling is to find a good way to live.” In other words, the called life is the good life, and that is the good news that Paul J. Wadell and Charles R. Pinches offer readers, wherever they might find themselves on their vocational journey (1). This volume is a rich contribution to contemporary conversations on vocational exploration, which is emerging as a distinct field. The volume opens with an orienting introduction to the concept of vocation and then invites readers into a consideration of what it is to “live vocationally,” namely, what people might consider, pay attention to, ask themselves, and do as they consider their callings.
This review primarily considers the book as a teaching text for the undergraduate classroom, though it is useful beyond that context. Wadell and Pinches themselves identify the target audience, if not the sole audience, as college juniors and seniors. The text strikes a fine balance between accessibility and scholarly depth, and Christian scholars will find this volume valuable for the way it both synthesizes the biblical and theological roots of the concept of vocation and offers fresh insights and guidance on “the journey of the called life.” What makes it a real gem, however, are its possibilities for the classroom in the contemporary university, especially in how it invites its readers to apply its insights—a gift for anyone but especially for young adults considering large, existential questions about their place and their work in the world.
The volume is divided into three sections. The first section, “Preparing for the Journey,” is dedicated to tracing the concept of vocation in the Christian biblical and theological traditions. The true heart of the book is the second section, “The Journey of the Called Life,” where the authors consider what living vocationally is and, importantly, is not. They take seriously the dynamism of life as well as its complexities, imperfections, and unpredictability, as they lay out questions and guidelines one might consider in approaching life through a vocational lens. That is, their understanding of the called life is at once hopeful and realistic. This authenticity only strengthens their argument that the called life, while offering no guarantees, is nonetheless “a good way to live” (1). “Virtues for the Journey,” the final section of the book, examines virtues for various stages of the called life: attentiveness, humility, and gratitude for beginning the journey; fidelity, justice, and courage for continuing the journey; and hope and patience for completing the journey. This section of the book is especially powerful because the language of virtues is no longer common among young people, even as most are hungry for guiding values by which to direct and craft their lives.
Wadell and Pinches articulate several counter-cultural commitments shared by many educators who work in mission-driven or values-based institutions and who lament certain contemporary cultural shifts that now shape higher education. In doing so, they demonstrate how an appeal to tradition might offer contemporary higher education a means of re-grounding, that is, a return to traditional roots for the sake of a life more abundant amidst institutional cultures that seem to assume poverty of time and of resources, and to project those onto their students.
The first object of critique is the primary (sometimes exclusive) focus on personal fulfillment. Cultural messages such as “find your passion” and “do what you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life,” combined with pressures to self-promote and self-brand, yield a highly individualistic approach to how students are formed for their futures. Even at institutions where notions of citizenship or the common good are components of the stated mission, students frequently focus on individual success and may even look to volunteer work primarily as padding for a resumé. From the volume’s very first page, Wadell and Pinches invoke notions of calling and vocation that insist upon the centrality of community and common flourishing:
We come to life and are fulfilled when, instead of putting ourselves first, we transcend ourselves in love and service to people and projects worthy of the gift of ourselves. We shrivel when we live for nothing more than ourselves; we flourish when we come out of ourselves in order to live for something larger and more compelling (1–2).
How are educators equipping students to explore this dimension of calling?
Wadell and Pinches also challenge the emphasis on career preparation and greater employability as the sole benefit of a college degree. Instead, the authors emphasize the importance of character formation and becoming the kind of person we should be (3). Colleges and universities have an ethical imperative to prepare students for gainful employment. However, when faith-based institutions fail to instill in their students that they are worthy before and beyond their income and that they deserve to have a fulfilling life beyond making a living, those institutions have become too much “of the world.” This is why the authors speak less of having a vocation than of living vocationally, a way of indicating that vocation is about one’s whole life and not just one’s career (2). In other words, they call their readers to appreciate vocation not as an object or destination but as a journey and a way of living that involves the careful, intentional formation of character and relationships.
This distinction is key for another reason. On many campuses, the language of “purpose” is used instead of vocation. From colorful admissions brochures to advising emails, students are often assured that Institution X will help them “find their purpose.” While such assurances are well-meaning, this concept can be daunting for students. If they are struggling to declare a major, then the demand to discern their Life Purpose in a mere four years feels impossible—and it is. The stakes are even higher for students of faith: if they fail to find their purpose, will this mean they have disappointed not just their parents but God? The shift to living vocationally not only lifts this pressure from students, but it gives them a concept that is flexible and responsive as they move through their lives, one that accounts for shifts in circumstances, relationships, commitments, and even perspectives and values.
Living Vocationally faces a limit (where much work on vocational exploration does) at the tricky question of how to translate a foundational Christian concept in such a way that it can speak to those who do not claim a Christian identity. Although there are analogs in other wisdom traditions—and Wadell and Pinches appreciatively gesture to those—the very concept of vocation is a Christian one. Living Vocationally assumes familiarity with and a personal commitment to Christianity, and it will work very well with those institutions and students already firmly rooted in the Christian tradition. For students who are less familiar, which is many students these days (even those who self-identify as Christian), faculty will need to frame the text. Likewise, while non-Christians may be able to draw wisdom from the book, students who do not identify with the Christian tradition may struggle to cross the hurdle of figuring out how it applies to them. Instructors will need to translate and/or supplement the text.
Wadell and Pinches largely speak out of and toward their own specific contexts, and they do so beautifully, yet this also brings them to another limit. One critique of vocational exploration paradigms is that they overwhelmingly assume a white, Western, and middle-class context. Living Vocationally does not escape this critique. Chicano Christian author Patrick Reyes challenges privileged educators and scholars to attend to “the purpose gap” experienced by marginalized and oppressed communities and their young people: that is, the way God’s callings of Black and Brown people are impeded by inequitable material conditions and their impact on not only lives but imaginations and future possibilities.1 Even as the authors point to the communal dimensions of vocation and gesture toward the realities of inequity, they do not pay sustained attention to the structural or systemic issues that may impede the full vocational flourishing of the oppressed or marginalized. The humility and generosity of spirit with which the authors write suggest that any second edition of the volume would incorporate the insights of Reyes and others.
These limitations notwithstanding, Living Vocationally offers a rich portrait of vocation as “the journey of the called life,” one that insists upon others’ flourishing alongside one’s own, that accounts for the twists and turns of life, and that posits a capacious vision of the life well lived. Christian scholars across various institutional contexts will find it useful as either a core text or a valuable resource alongside others, especially with students engaged in the most fundamental questions of identity and calling. Highly recommended.