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Using a student assignment on the philosopher Charles Taylor as a case study, this essay argues that teaching about vocation and calling can help students see that a call from God need not be entirely nebulous, emotional, and individualistic in nature. Rather, although there are important nebulous and emotional aspects to vocation, the concept might also include elements that are rational, conceptual, and open to being developed in conversation and in community with others. Furthermore, the essay suggests that not only do vocation and calling programs give students tools for helping them discern a vocation; they also help move students away from their previously held assumption that discerning vocation is a quasi-mystical endeavor that remains beyond the reach of tools, strategies, and tactics. Well-conceived programs that focus on vocation and calling can provide students with precisely the tools, strategies, and tactics that they need for the process of discernment.

Readers of this journal might assume that church-related institutions of higher education would obviously be interested in questions of vocation and calling. Given the centrality of stories of calling both to the Bible and to the Christian tradition more broadly, colleges and universities with links to the Christian faith should have a natural inclination to address big questions about the meaning and purpose of life. Wouldn’t the most obvious way to encourage students to approach such questions be to ask them to think about what they are called to do?

Yet, in fact, it is only in recent years that there has been a groundswell of interest in the paradigm of vocation and calling. This has driven in large part by, first, the Lilly Endowment’s Programs for the Theological Exploration of Vocation (PTEV), an initiative that ran from 2000 to 2009; and, second, the Council of Independent Colleges’ Network for Vocation in Undergraduate Education (NetVUE), funded by member dues and receiving continued support from Lilly.1 Given the recent nature of that groundswell, then, the question is not an obtuse one: what is the relationship between questions of vocation and calling and church-related institutions of higher education?

I am not the first person to attempt to answer this question. Tim Clydesdale, perhaps most notably, has argued emphatically in favor of programs dealing with vocation and calling, suggesting that such programs are the “best hope for disrupting the left jab (rising costs) and right cross (weak student skills)” of higher education’s pugilistic critics.2 Others, such as David S. Cunningham, have also written in justification of vocation and calling programs.3 I will make use of both their arguments, as well as some others; but my argument is not theirs.

My claim is that teaching about vocation and calling provides my institution’s (largely Christian) students with a model for a relationship with God that is quite different from the one they possess when they walk through our doors. In particular, I will argue that vocation and calling programs teach students that a call from God need not be entirely nebulous, emotional, and individualistic in nature; instead, while there are important nebulous and emotional aspects to vocation, the concept might also be rational, conceptual, and open to being developed in conversation and in community with others. Furthermore, I will suggest that not only do vocation and calling programs give students tools for helping them discern a vocation, but also that they help move students away from their previously held assumption that discerning vocation is a quasi-mystical endeavor—beyond the reach of tools, strategies, and tactics. Moreover, well-conceived programs that focus on vocation and calling can provide students with precisely the tools, strategies, and tactics that they need for the process of discernment.

I will make this argument using as a case-study an assignment on the philosopher Charles Taylor that has been a mainstay of my institution’s calling and vocation program since 2014. I suggest that, through the characteristic ways in which our students succeed (and do not succeed) in this assignment, they reveal much about the assumptions they bring with them about vocation and calling—and how our program can shake those assumptions in productive ways.

The Huntingdon Context

Huntingdon College, where I serve as chief academic officer, is a small college associated with the United Methodist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. Founded in 1854, our typical enrollment is between 800 and 850 in any given year. As noted above, we have consciously focused on vocation and calling as key elements of our curriculum since 2014. We are a regional college with students largely from Alabama, Florida, and Georgia. About 65 to 70% of our students are White; our largest group of minority students is African Americans, who make up 15–20% of our population in a given year. Around 55% of our students are men and around 45% women. We are a selective institution but not an elite one. Recruiting is built around NCAA Division III athletics; 80% of our students are either on a sports team, on a cheer team, or in the marching band. We are on the model of what Mary Marcy has called the “New American College,” maintaining “a liberal arts core and general education and residential experience,” but with a number of professionally-focused undergraduate degrees in, for example, criminal justice and sports management, as well as a graduate program in athletic training.4 As might be expected given the students’ widespread participation on sports teams, our largest numbers of majors are in the departments of sports sciences and physical education on the one hand, or in business administration on the other.

As far as our connection with the church goes: we are formally and happily affiliated with the United Methodist Church; however, we do not require students or faculty to sign a statement of faith. Approximately 80% of our students formally identify as Christian in some way when asked, with 29% identifying either solely as “Christian” (specifying no denomination) or as “nondenominational.” The largest single denomination is Baptist, with 25% of students so identifying. Despite our formal affiliation, only 12% of our current students identify as Methodist. Of the 20% of students who do not identify as Christian, the majority choose to identify as “Unknown” on our survey; very few positively identify as atheist or agnostic, or as any non-Christian religion. Many of our students attend church; we also have a thriving campus ministries program.

As someone whose PhD is in English, I am not an expert in Christianity by profession; nevertheless, I have been heavily involved (along with others) in designing a substantial program dealing with vocation and calling at Huntingdon. This program began in 2014 with the pilot of a class that all students would take after completing the remainder of their general education requirements. The course was entitled “Practicing the Art of Critical Thinking”; however, it focused on vocation and calling. Students were assigned texts dealing with both ethics and careers, and were asked students to consider how these texts were directly relevant to their lives.5 In 2019, the program expanded to become a two-course sequence: CALL200, “Introduction to Ethics and Vocation,” taken by all sophomores, and CALL300, “Perspectives in Ethics and Vocation,” taken by juniors and seniors.6 Additionally, all sophomore students participate in a retreat day focused on calling and vocation, immediately prior to the semester in which they take the sophomore course. Finally, in fall 2022, we have added a course for first-year students: CALL100, “College-Readiness and Vocation,” which links issues of navigating college for the first time with introductory questions about vocation and calling.7

The Assignment

Students in our upper-level classes on vocation and calling have long been required to write an essay on the philosopher Charles Taylor’s The Ethics of Authenticity, a substantial extract from which appears in our textbook, Leading Lives that Matter, edited by Mark Schwehn and Dorothy Bass.8 Taylor’s book, adapted from a series of lectures the philosopher gave in 1991, famously argues that our “contemporary culture of authenticity” is a “degraded, absurd, or trivialized” version of Romantic philosophy. It depends on a “soft relativism” in which the only moral demand upon an individual is that I am “true to myself”; it is vital that I “do [my] own thing” and “find [my] own fulfillment.” I must, above all, be “true to my own originality, and that is something only I can articulate and discover.”9 In the book-length version of his argument, Taylor holds out hope that the concept of authenticity might be salvaged from this degraded contemporary version. However, in the extract, Taylor has nothing good to say about authenticity, questioning whether one can even “say anything in reason to people who are immersed in the contemporary culture of authenticity.”10

In opposition to the ethics of authenticity, Taylor holds up the “fundamentally dialogical character” of human life.11 By this, he means two things: first, that the values by which we define ourselves only have meaning against the backdrop of various pre-existing “horizons of significance.”12 If I want to make the claim that it is important that I have “exactly 3,732 hairs on my head,” that claim is only intelligible at all against the horizon of my society’s values. It could be significant, for instance, if “the number 3,732 is a sacred one” in my society, but not otherwise.13 Second, our identities tend to be formed not merely against the horizon of, but in dialogue with, other people in our lives. Even if we were able to minimize the extent to which our identities are formed in concert with others, why would we do so? Taylor observes that, if we attempt to prevent others from helping us shape our selves, we forget “how our understanding of the good things in life can be transformed by our enjoying them in common with people we love, how some goods become accessible to us only through such common enjoyment.”14

Taylor summarizes the imperative of the culture of authenticity as a demand that we look to our nebulous inner selves, and only to those inner selves, in order to discern the ultimate truth about those selves. He argues both that this is largely incoherent and—even where it is not incoherent—that it is undesirable.

Our assignment typically asks students to critique one of a series of popular self-help-inflected images from a Taylorian standpoint. We switch up the images from semester to semester, but a typical one features a sailboat heading off into a sunset and features the legend “FOLLOW YOUR HEART. DON’T WASTE YOUR LIFE FULFILLING SOMEONE ELSE’S DREAMS AND DESIRES.”15

The Student Response

Students who had read and understood the Taylor essay might respond that Taylor would disagree with the slogan’s opposition between one’s “heart,” on the one hand, and “someone else’s dreams and desires” on the other, noting that Taylor would probably argue that one develops one’s own “dreams and desires” in concert with “someone else” in the first place. They might note that Taylor would likely find the imperative to “Follow your heart” to be largely meaningless, in any case. And some students do observe that, in the image, the sailboat is crewed by several people, which means that either some of the crew are there, ironically, “fulfilling someone else’s dreams and desires,” or else that the crew have constructed a common desire to sail off into the sunset dialogically and in community with one another. Some students also note that the image of a sailboat is, in any case, an extremely generic representation of what it means to follow one’s heart and is hardly representative of the kind of originality the image seems to want to promote.

However, what often happens is that students get Taylor’s argument precisely backwards. In initial class discussion, or on online discussion boards, or even in the final assignment itself, students misread Taylor as arguing precisely what he is arguing against: one writes in a discussion post, “I liked the part in the reading when Taylor mentions self determining [sic] freedom. He says, ‘It is the idea that I am free when I decide for myself what concerns me, rather than being shaped by external influences.’”16 Another writes that the main theme of Taylor’s argument is “the idea that we should decide for ourselves and not be influenced by external influences, that we should be self-determining.”

A different discussion board hints at another recurring theme: students pick up on the language of authenticity because they believe they find in it a philosophy that applies to issues in their own lives. Glossing the quotation from Taylor—“I am called upon to live my life in this way, and not in imitation of anyone else’s”—a student writes “I really like this quote because it can be very hard to be 100% ourselves. In today’s time, especially with social media, it is easy to compare yourself to others. . . . I have fallen victim to comparing myself to others but now I am really focusing on just being myself and living my best life.” Students discover, in the “absurd” philosophy Taylor rehearses in order to argue against it, language and concepts that they feel naturally apply to their own lives.

The language many students use to describe their own “ethics of authenticity” is similar, in crucial ways, to the language they use to describe their relationship with God. Several features are common to both “the ethics of authenticity” and many students’ sense of what it means to know what God wants of them. These include:

  • they rely on an opposition to the counsel of others;
  • they depend on a nebulous communion (with the self or God respectively);
  • this communion is fundamentally mysterious in some way; and
  • these matters are emotional and seemingly arational.

I will address these four points in turn.

First, as with their responses to Taylor, many students seek to distinguish what God wants from what others of various stripes might advise them to do—as if these things could not work in tandem. Knowing what God wants is based on a private and individual relationship with God; God’s plan, in the minds of many of our students, does not reach them via the mouths of friends and family. Thus, as one student writes, we need to “be able to find our calling by ourselves to ensure we aren’t being heavily influenced by others.” Another distinguishes between a “true calling,” which comes from God, and “other callings,” which might come from “the environment” or “your parents suggesting what you should do.” In a post on the Book of Jonah, one student suggests (without evidence) that the reason Jonah ignored what he was “called by God to do” was due to external “influences in his life”; on the other side of the same coin, a student argues against Taylor by writing that the biblical David “had people telling him not to do this, it was a waste of time, go do something useful, be smart,” but that David “did not listen to anyone else except for himself and he won by going down his own path.”

Second, students tend to have a strong sense that they share a nebulous communion with God that allows them to know what God wants of them, and that they are able clearly to distinguish this from what they want for themselves. One might want “to do what you want to do but with God laying out your life, he should know what’s best for you,” writes one. “What we are called to do is not what we had planned for ourselves,” writes another. “Would you pursue the calling sent to you by God, even if you did not find any satisfaction in it?” asks one student, as if it is easy to distinguish God’s wishes from one’s own. “[A]s a Christian I want to do what God wants me to do and has placed for me to do, but it would definitely be a challenge if I didn’t find any satisfaction in it,” replies another.

Third, while its nature is clear, many students’ method of intuiting what God wants for them is quite mysterious. God might express himself through “signs”: “if God keeps giving me signs that what I’m pursuing is wrong, even if it makes me happy I feel like it would be best to step away.” “If you keep questioning yourself about if you are taking the right path then maybe you are not and God will give you signs of the right path.” One student wrote a response suggesting that one knows what God wants simply because it is what happens: “[Y]ou will unintentionally find yourself down a path and then you will know that this is what God intended for you.” The precise nature of these signs and paths remains obscure, perhaps even to the students themselves; but they do not seem particularly motivated to reduce their obscurity.

Finally, students’ sense of how one intuits God’s calling is distinctly emotional in nature. Your calling “shouldn’t come from your brain, but rather your heart,” writes one. God’s calling is just something that “deep down you know.” “[I]f we follow our hearts then we can still be on the right path, because in all he [God] is still in our hearts if we want him to be. That is the direction that I believe leads our calling, is our hearts.” Another writes that “we can distinguish […] calling from temptation with the difference in the feeling.” In similar fashion, another writes that “a calling is a deep feeling you’ve been subconsciously aware of for a long time.” Students rarely mention rational thought as a means to discernment.

Broadening the Perspective

While I am not a historian of Christianity, I believe that our students’ understanding of their relationship with God can be situated in the context of the church in the United States. It is not too much of a stretch to argue that the version of Christianity that many of our students practice has much in common with the outlook they bring to their classes on vocation and calling.

United States Christianity can tend to reinscribe the individualist opposition between the true self and suspect others into a Bible where it does not necessarily belong. The notion that Jesus is one’s “personal savior” may be a saw with roots in early twentieth-century evangelical culture, but Matthew Hedstrom argues that “individual experience” had become the “inviolable heart of religion” in the United States (as opposed to “dogma, revelation, and ecclesial authority”) as early as the nineteenth century.17 Discussing the tendency of Christians in the United States to project an individualist worldview onto the church, Christian writer Gregory Boyd glosses individualism in a way that mirrors the students’ discussion posts: to be “individualistic” is “to define individuals over and against others rather than in relationship to others,” just as students define their personal relationship with God against, rather than in relationship to, their relationships with other people.18 Reviewing E. Randolph Richards and Richard James’s Misreading Scripture with Individualist Eyes in Christianity Today, Nijay K. Gupta parodies the kinds of slogans we use in our Taylor assignment as evidence of the individualist values with which United States Christians approach nonwestern cultures: “Be yourself! Listen to your heart! Follow your dreams!19 (Richards and James’s book makes a related point at deeper and greater length: that Biblical cultures were collectivist ones and we superimpose our own individualism onto the Bible quite anachronistically.20) Contemporary Christian music often similarly casts the relationship with God as an intimate individual one that seems to exclude others in its intensity. Christian Copyright Licensing International’s current most-licensed song,21 Bethel Music’s “Goodness of God,” is typical, filled with references to “I” and “You,” with no sign of anyone else anywhere.22

In similar fashion, the evangelical United States Christianity with which most of our students identify is, as Todd Brenneman argues, “closely focused on emotion.”23 Or, as Mark Noll famously argues, the most popular Christian movements in the United States are “affectional” much more than they are “intellectual.”24 (Again, “Goodness of God” provides an object example in its opening line: “I love You, Lord.” Not that this is a bad thing to declare! But given the absence of other human beings throughout the song, the opening line takes on a sense of isolation, as though the singer and God are engaged in a secret relationship.) While scholars such as Molly Worthen have argued that there is a profound tension between reason and emotion in the evangelical world,25 Brenneman argues that “most evangelicals have abandoned the life of the mind in favor of a religious life of emotion.”26 He goes on to suggest that evangelical churches “offer their audiences the opportunity to feel that evangelicalism is right rather than asking them to accept the veracity of the doctrinal positions of evangelicalism.”27 Such a privileging of feeling over “doctrin[e]” or “the mind” mirrors the positions we see our students take on matters of vocation: vocation is a matter of whether or not one has the right feeling in one’s heart about what one is doing.

It may be worth noting a paradox here. It might seem as if the “soft relativism” that Taylor decries is a hallmark, if not a caricature, of political liberalism. This is how the critique of relativism is typically read in a text that Taylor cites approvingly, and to which The Ethics of Authenticity is sometimes compared: Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind.28 And after all, the self-authenticating power of “individual experience” that Hedstrom places at the center of United States Christianity is, in his view, a feature of a “liberal religion.”29 Yet although many of my students—here at a Christian-affiliated college in the Deep South—would seem to embrace soft relativism, they would not, by and large, self-identify as liberal.

Admittedly, Taylor was writing in 1991, and Bloom’s book was published in 1987. Is it even appropriate to discuss relativism on college campuses in 2023 as though academic culture were the same as it was thirty years ago? Perhaps not; but to this objection, I might offer the rejoinder that in their commitment to nebulous individualism, our students are liberal, and that this has nothing to do with whether they identify as left- or right-wing. As Patrick Deneen argues, there is no choice between left and right when it comes to liberalism; both are equally committed to it in one way or another.30

Evaluating the Student Response

At this point, it might be worth asking what is wrong with the students’ commitment to the ethics of authenticity. After all, it might be argued that this nebulous individualism is a perfectly fine way to figure out one’s vocation: one hears about it from God through the power of deep feelings, and that is the voice to which one should cleave in opposition to the voices of friends, family, and society.

It is worth pausing for a moment to take this argument seriously. Perhaps there is something nebulous about vocation, insofar as vocations are not easy to discern. I would not like to give the impression that I believe that a student could read one article, or have one rational conversation with a mentor and—boom!— everything is figured out. As I will discuss below, and as Andy Chan and David Cunningham have argued, a sense of vocation takes “time” to develop.31 Our thoughts and feelings about vocation need time to solidify; indeed, taking appropriate time is an important means of determining whether a vocation is sincerely considered, genuinely discerned, and deeply held.

In addition, vocation may not be a wholly rational concept in the first place. Another text we assign to our students is Maggie Smith’s poem “Good Bones.” Here, Smith’s speaker describes urging her children to strive to make the world “beautiful” despite the fact that it is “at least half terrible.”32 The speaker has no particular confidence that the world can in fact be made beautiful; rather, like a realtor who “chirps on / about good bones:” she is trying to “sell” the world to her children in order to shield them from the full horror of the place into which they have been born. Yet the speaker is also not convinced that the world cannot be made better: the poem ends with the hopeful line (though admittedly spoken by that realtor): “You could make this place beautiful.” This is a paradoxical conception of vocation: we should strive to make the world a better place, not because we will succeed, but as a defense against hopelessness; yet, at the same time, if we do strive to make a better world, the world might indeed end up better as a result. In texts like this, the concept of vocation is both less rational and more nebulous than my essay may have had a tendency to make it appear. At the very least, it may be a paradoxical pursuit.

It may also be true that our feelings can be a powerful guide to what we truly want from our lives. There are occasions when we may not know exactly what we think about something—we can see both sides of an argument, for instance—but we do know what we feel about it (for example, about which side is the right one). Finally, it is also undoubtedly true that people feel pressure to act in a certain way from outside sources (friends, parents, teachers, and others); and of course, those sources may not always have an individual’s best interests in mind. It is easy, therefore, to see the attraction of the ethics of authenticity; this approach speaks to the desires that students might be likely to have: their desire for adequate time and space to chew over their sense of vocation, their desire for respect to be paid to their feelings, and their desire for freedom from the interference of others.

Yet, in addition to the objections rehearsed above—that a commitment to authenticity of this sort is incoherent and that it ignores the many genuine goods that come from interacting with others—Taylor adds a third: that the ethics of authenticity are irrational in a way that is quite unhelpful.33 Applying Taylor’s argument to vocation, the issue is that there is no non-mysterious way of tell- ing whether the deep feelings through which one hears about one’s calling are true—which is to say, adequately discerned and accurately translated into actual practice. How does one know that these feelings come from God? There is no way to tell, except by the quality of the feeling itself.

Here, then, is one key value of vocation and calling programming for students in church-related higher education: while recognizing the sometimes nebulous nature of the concepts, it can provide tactics and strategies for determining a vocation to students, many of whom are used to thinking of vocation as fundamentally mysterious—whether or not they would express it that way.

For Huntingdon, this is very much in line with Methodist theology. It is true that John Wesley famously had a nebulous individual experience of God when he found his heart “strangely warmed” at a prayer meeting on Aldersgate Street.34 And it is true that Methodism broadened the Anglican theological tradition in order to include “experience” as one of its four factors through which Christians might illuminate their faith. However, Methodists should not rely on the value of experience alone, but also make use of the other three sides of the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral” when discerning how to act: Scripture, tradition, and—crucially here—reason. To this point, as many Methodist historians point out, Wesley’s affective experience did not arrive out of nowhere; rather, Wesley had been deeply engaged in the (quite rational!) study of scripture and religious texts prior to his experience at Aldersgate.

Other readings in Leading Lives that Matter provide our students with a variety of non-mysterious means of discerning vocation. Frederick Buechner famously advises his readers to look for a vocation “where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”35 Lee Hardy advises students to seek their vocations at the intersection of a different Venn diagram: where their abilities, concerns, and interests overlap.36 Will Campbell, Wendell Berry, and Bonnie Miller-McLemore ask students to see themselves as enmeshed in a community with needs they might meet when attempting to discern what to do with their lives.37 Berry and Gilbert Meilaender ask us to see vocation as something that might go beyond our paid occupation, whereas Vincent Harding and Gary Badcock ask us to consider the possibility that we might have multiple possible vocations, no one of which is the single “true” one.38 Dorothy Day asks students to imagine that the small de- cisions of everyday life might add up to a meaningful vocation, while Dorothy L. Sayers insists that any job done for the glory of God might do likewise.39

At Huntingdon, we pair these readings with a series of exercises designed to ask students to come at the question of vocation from a number of angles. For example, adapting an exercise from Bill Burnett and Dave Evans’s Designing Your Life, we ask students to keep a two-week journal detailing times in which they felt themselves to be in a state of “flow.”40 The exercise is designed to help students notice areas of interest that they might not be aware of having, with the aim of possibly opening up new avenues of vocational possibility. In another exercise, we ask students to work with a series of potential careers selected from the Bureau of Labor Statistics website, in order to get a good sense of what their concerns are when looking to find a vocation. In another, we ask students to develop their sense of vocation dialogically by selecting and meeting with a “sophomore guide”—an adult they respect and trust at the institution—in order to discuss vocational choices.

Vocation programming at Huntingdon also emphasizes justice. Based on the contention that part of the nature of a calling is that it be ethical, Huntingdon students learn about ethics as part of their CALL classes. As part of a vocation focused retreat in which all sophomores take part—and in addition to reading about various ethical theories—students visit the Equal Justice Initiative’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice (the “lynching memorial”) in downtown Montgomery. In some years they have also watched a video by Equal Justice Initiative founder Bryan Stevenson that arguably casts the creation of the memorial as an act of vocation.41 This sophomore retreat goes hand-in-hand with a grant we have received from NetVUE that focuses on race and justice, as part of which we have created a minor in African American Studies and undertaken a host of other related activities.

The visit to the memorial provides a good example of how thinking and feeling can intertwine when considering vocation. The memorial’s architecture is designed to arouse powerful feelings. The visitor begins by walking through a series of what seem to be columns labeled with the names of lynching victims. As the visitor progresses, the walkway slopes downward until the columns are suspended above them, now transformed into objects reminiscent of lynched hanging bodies. The experience of walking through the space is a deeply sobering one, and we schedule time and activities for students to reflect on what they have just been through in order to help everyone process the feelings it stirs up. The memorial’s relationship with the sentimental tradition is complex for a number of reasons, but it stands in the lineage of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, with its famous exhortation that the purpose of antiracist artwork is to persuade an audience to “feel right” (i.e., appropriately) about racial justice.42

Yet at the same time, the memorial can be read as an object lesson in thinking about vocation. As much as the experience of the memorial is something that the observer “feels,” there is nothing mysterious about it as an example of Stevenson’s vocation. Stevenson saw that “There [weren’t] places you can go in this country and be confronted with the history of racial terror and violence and walk out and say ‘never again’”;43 therefore, he set out to build such a place. The memorial is “fundamentally dialogical,” in Taylor’s sense—it was built in collaboration with many people, and against the clear horizon of significance of the history of race in the United States. At risk of bathos, but without necessarily being untruthful, we might read it in Hardy’s terms as lying at the intersection of Stevenson’s concerns, interests, and abilities.

Perhaps what binds all this together is that, to use David Cunningham’s terminology, the undergraduate experience provides both “time” and “place” for students to do the work of vocational discernment.44 The temporal element is especially important. Thinking about a vocation is not a “one and done” activity, but rather takes time. On a visit to my institution some years ago, NetVUE consultant Carter Aikin emphasized the importance of an “arc of vocation,” where students have the structured opportunity to think about vocation at multiple points over their four-year journey through college. Here, we attempt to make that possible with a freshman college-readiness class that introduces students to questions of vocation, followed by a vocation-themed retreat for all sophomores, followed by two courses focused particularly on vocation and calling: one during the sophomore year and another once the student has completed the rest of the general education curriculum. NetVUE collaborator Andy Chan emphasizes something similar in his well-known TEDx Talk, “‘Career Services’ Must Die”: discerning a vocation takes time. For Chan, this is why vocation programming is superior to a traditional career services model, which focuses on matching a student with a job: “If we get too focused on the career side, we’re always focused on What do I do? How do I get the job? How do I get out there? How do I get it? But we actually have to start with: Who are you? And: Why are you? And: What really matters to you?” Chan’s office of “personal and career development” at Wake Forest University pays attention to these con- cerns, seeking to engage students over the long term. It is, in Chan’s words, “a process of development and growth and learning.” “Who are you? In terms of your interests, your values, your strengths, your personality, your beliefs; the things that matter to you and what do you care about? That takes time to think about and to reflect and figure out. Students need to have time to go through that process . . . back and forth, and back and forth, and slowly the picture will start to be created.”45

“Back and forth and back and forth.” Discerning a vocation need not be mysterious, but it does require strategies, it is inherently dialogical, and it takes time. As their responses to Charles Taylor reveal, our students come to us without sophisticated methods for thinking about how they will choose their vocation. Their thinking about vocation mirrors their thinking about their relationship with God in that they conceive of both as fundamentally mysterious. Students come into the college convinced that vocation is a matter of feeling only. Our aim with the programming we offer is to help them develop strategies, not only for attending to their feelings about their vocations, but for thinking about them as well.

Cite this article
Tom Perrin, “The Taylor Paper: God and Vocation in Christian Higher Education”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 52:4 , 89-102


  1. For more on PTEV see Tim Clydesdale, The Purposeful Graduate: Why Colleges Must Talk to Students about Vocation (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2015); for more on NetVUE see “Network for Vocation in Undergraduate Education,” Council of Independent Colleges, accessed December 5, 2022,
  2. Clydesdale, xviii.
  3. David S. Cunningham, “Introduction: Time and Place: Why Vocation Is Crucial to Undergraduate Education Today,” in At This Time and In This Place: Vocation and Higher Education, ed. David S. Cunningham (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2016), 1–19.
  4. Mary B. Marcy, The Small College Imperative: From Survival to Transformation (Washington, DC: Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, 2017), 5.
  5. Tom Perrin, “Practicing the Art of Critical Thinking” (syllabus, Huntingdon College, Montgomery, AL, 2014), 1.
  6. The CALL200 and 300 curriculum was designed by Jared Rehm (assistant professor of sport science and physical education), Sarah Sours (associate professor of religion and associate dean of faculty), and me. The program is currently overseen by Sarah Sours.
  7. CALL100 was designed by Lisa Dorman (dean of academic enrichment) and others.
  8. As a textbook, Leading Lives that Matter is very much bound up with the Lilly Endowment’s support for conversations around vocation; it was created at the invitation of the coordinators of Lilly’s Programs for the Theological Exploration of Vocation initiative, “in response to requests for material that could be used in campus settings” as part of that program. See Mark R. Schwehn and Dorothy C. Bass, “Preface,” in Leading Lives that Matter: What We Should Do and Who We Should Be (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2006), xvi–xvii. A new edition of the book is now available (published in 2020).
  9. Charles Taylor, “The Ethics of Authenticity,” in Schwehn and Bass, eds., Leading Lives that Matter, 49–58; here, 52.
  10. Taylor, “The Ethics of Authenticity,” 52.
  11. Taylor, “The Ethics of Authenticity,” 53.
  12. Taylor, “The Ethics of Authenticity,” 56.
  13. Taylor, “The Ethics of Authenticity,” 55.
  14. Taylor, “The Ethics of Authenticity,” 54.
  15. See “Quotes about Follow Your Heart,” Quotemaster, accessed December 5, 2022,
  16. This quotation, and those that follow, are from discussion boards on Huntingdon’s learning management system. Please contact the author of this essay for further details.
  17. Matthew S. Hedstrom, The Rise of Liberal Religion: Book Culture and American Spirituality in the Twentieth Century (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2012), 8.
  18. Gregory Boyd, “Dismembered: The Church and Individualism,” ReKnew, February 2, 2016,
  19. Nijay K. Gupta, “In the Bible, ‘Individualism’ and ‘Collectivism’ Aren’t Neat and Tidy Categories,” review of Richard James and Randolph Richards, Misreading Scripture with Individualist Eyes: Patronage, Honor, and Shame in the Biblical World (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press Academic, 2020), in Christianity Today, October 22, 2020, eyes-randolph-richards.html.
  20. See James and Richards, Misreading Scripture. Also see Kristin Kobes Du Mez, Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation (New York, NY: Liveright, 2020) for a more polemical account of the influence of rugged masculine individualism on evangelical Christianity in the United States.
  21. “CCLI Top 100 | Chords, Lyrics and Sheet Music | SongSelect,” SongSelect by CCLI, accessed October 7, 2022,
  22. “Goodness of God – Bethel Music,” Bethel Music, accessed October 7, 2022, https://
  23. Todd M. Brenneman, Homespun Gospel: The Triumph of Sentimentality in Contemporary American Evangelicalism (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2014), 4.
  24. Mark A. Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994), 24.
  25. Molly Worthen, Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2016).
  26. Brenneman, Homespun Gospel, 4.
  27. Brenneman, Homespun Gospel, 10.
  28. For Taylor’s treatment of Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 1987), see Taylor, The Ethics of Authenticity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992), 13–16.
  29. Hedstrom, The Rise of Liberal Religion, 1.
  30. Patrick J. Deneen, Why Liberalism Failed (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2018), 17. See also the work of theologian Stanley Hauerwas, who emphasizes the degree to which Christianity in the United States has often given itself over to the liberal project (again, not as a left-wing phenomenon, but as a political and socio-economic perspective that dominates life in this country).
  31. Cunningham, “Introduction: Time and Place,” 1. See also Andy Chan, “‘Career Services’ Must Die: Andy Chan at TEDx LawrenceU,” YouTube, May 15, 2013, https://
  32. Maggie Smith, “Good Bones,” Poetry Foundation, 2016, https://www.poetryfoun
  33. Taylor, “The Ethics of Authenticity,” 52.
  34. John Wesley, The Journal of John Wesley, Christian Classics Ethereal Library, accessed Dec. 5, 2022,
  35. Frederick Buechner, “Vocation,” in Schwehn and Bass, eds., Leading Lives that Matter, 111.
  36. Lee Hardy, “Making the Match: Career Choice,” in Schwehn and Bass, eds., Lead- ing Lives that Matter, 90–100; here, 99.
  37. See Will Campbell, “Vocation as Grace”; Wendell Berry, “An Invisible Web”; and Bonnie Miller-McLemore, “Generativity Crises of My Own,” all in Schwehn and Bass, eds., Leading Lives that Matter, 112–13, 283–93, and 263–71.
  38. See Berry, “An Invisible Web”; see also Gilbert Meilaender, “Friendship and Vo- cation”; Vincent Harding, “I Hear Them . . . Calling”; and Gary D. Badcock, “Choosing,” all in Schwehn and Bass, eds., Leading Lives that Matter, 229–43, 395–403, and 101–106.
  39. See Dorothy Day, from Therese; and Dorothy L. Sayers, “Why Work?” both in Schwehn and Bass, eds., Leading Lives that Matter, 153–65 and 191–95.
  40. See Bill Burnett and Dave Evans, Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life (New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2016), 50–54. On “flow,” see Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (New York, NY: HarperPerennial, 2008).
  41. See Equal Justice Initiative, “Lynching In America: Why Are Memorials Important?” YouTube, Oct 24, 2019,
  42. Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or, Life Among the Lowly (New York, NY: Penguin, 1986), 624.
  43. Equal Justice Initiative, “Lynching in America.”
  44. See Cunningham, “Introduction: Time and Place.”
  45. Chan, “’Career Services’ Must Die.” Chan is vice president for innovation and career development at Wake Forest University and a member of the NetVUE Advisory He also appears as a guest on the NetVUE podcast Callings, in the episode “Career Services at a Crossroads,” accessed April 4, 2023,

Tom Perrin

Tom Perrin is senior vice president for academic affairs, dean of faculty, and professor of English at Huntingdon College in Montgomery, Alabama. For their help with drafts of this essay, the author would like to thank Rhett Butler, J. Cameron West, David S. Cunningham, and two anonymous external reviewers for Christian Scholar’s Review.