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When I was in high school, the most common use of the word vocation was in reference to the kids who left school right after lunch and headed out to a large, warehouse-like building near the airport. For those of us who stayed at school the rest of the day, this was known as the “Vo-Tech” school, where some of our fellow students learned to be diesel mechanics and aircraft repair personnel. I eventually learned that the “Vo” part was for “Vocational,” which apparently meant something like learning a trade.

Meanwhile, my Roman Catholic friends were having a different experience. To them, having a vocation meant that you were interested in holy orders; and even in the heady post-Vatican-II days of my childhood, this was not much of a selling point. When Father Bob or Sister Anne started talking about vocations, my friends usually got very interested in their own shoelaces, and/or tried to slip quietly out of the room.

In my own church context, I had a related experience with the word calling. Our church didn’t just hire a minister; we called one. Some kids thought they might have a calling to be a pastor or a missionary. And one of my strongest memories of this word was a usage employed on rare but regular occasions by my mother: whenever our minister was away, one of the church elders would preach. He preached well, and at great length, and with enthusiasm. (He also starred in most of the community theater’s musical productions.) At some point on his preaching days—after church or later in the day—my mom would praise his sermon and say something to the effect of “he really missed his calling.” As I remember, he was a successful lawyer; but my mom, at least, was sure that he should have been a minister. (Or perhaps an actor!)

I am regaling the readers of Christian Scholar’s Review with these stories, first, because I suspect that some of them have had similar experiences; and second, because they encapsulate the very interesting sojourn of the words vocation, vocational, and calling over the course of history. At various times and in various contexts, these words 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.

Readers can therefore be forgiven for imagining that a guest-edited issue of Christian Scholar’s Review on the topic of “vocation” might be a rather slippery beast. How is the language of vocation and calling being understood in the essays that follow? 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?

If these questions seem central, then this special issue of Christian Scholar’s Review has already succeeded in its goal—because these are the very 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. This includes the six authors of the following essays, as well as those whose books are reviewed as part of this issue. My hope is that the readers of this issue will come away with a broad, interdisciplinary sense of the nature of vocational exploration and discernment, and of the increasingly important role being played— especially in independent institutions of higher education—by programs that support this work among undergraduate students, faculty members, and staff.

Higher education receives careful attention in the lead essay, by Nicole 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 shows 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. As an accomplished teacher who has been deeply immersed in vocational exploration programming at her own institution, Johnson is well situated to provide an overview of the difference that this work can make in independent higher education today.

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), but they are not merely accounts of how vocational exploration and discernment “works” in their particular fields of study. Instead, these three essays offer academic explorations of how an engagement with vocation, using the methods and sources of their own disciplines, can contribute to a broader analysis of the role of vocational exploration and discernment in higher education. All three scholars offer insights that will be of significant interest to those outside their respective disciplines. I urge readers to avoid simply skipping to whichever essay falls within their own divisional specialty; all scholars will find interesting analyses and practical pedagogical suggestions in the work of each of these authors.

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 social 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. Dik does an excellent job of explaining the results (and non-results) of social science to those of us, myself included, who have worked very hard never to commit a social science. But don’t skip over his review of the literature; it includes a great many gems. And 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 essay is written by a historian, Daniel Wasserman-Soler, who taught for many years at Alma College. He begins with an acknowledgement of Martin Luther’s pivotal role in the recasting of vocation at the time of the Reformation, but he then suggests that Luther’s outsized presence in the field of vocation studies can sometimes obscure other earlier writers who thought seriously 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. Writing in the vernacular and with a reasonably good knowledge of the Muslim and Jewish traditions as well as his own, Llull describes a fictional encounter among three men, each from a different religious tradition, who undertake a civil and forthright dialogue about each of their perspectives. Llull’s account suggests that hospitality, beauty, and friendship help to provide the context that is needed for profound conversations about matters of meaning and purpose. 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, will not ask you to memorize a long list of biology terms in order to understand her essay! In fact, one of her concerns about the ways that we teach the natural sciences is that we have become so good at demanding terminological and conceptual mastery that we have left out some of the things that future scientists and health professionals need most. These elements are particularly emphasized when vocational reflection is made an integral part of the science curriculum. And before you object that science classes are already too compressed and that there is no room for any additional material, know that Santas offers examples from her own courses, and from science courses at other institutions, that have managed to make space for this very important work. She believes that the science curriculum needs to help students to develop the habits of mind and heart that will make them good at their work; it may also help them avoid some of the mistakes that researchers and medical personnel have made in the past. She 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. Cross-applying his insights to undergraduate science teaching, Santas urges us to set aside our historical obsession with mastery (of arguments, of data, of others) and to accept and live into the fragmentary nature of our knowledge. 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 serves 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—sometimes mistaking the one for the other. Perrin observes that their responses to Taylor’s critique provides 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. Students tend to distrust the counsel of others, to put a great deal of trust in a nebulous and mysterious communion with God, and to think of the proper response to God’s call to be based in the emotions and largely arational. Perrin goes on to describe how the Huntingdon vocation courses make use of other approaches (such as a close reading of Maggie Smith’s poem “Good Bones”) to help students find their way to a more mature and thoughtful account of vocation, encouraging them to a deeper process of exploration and discernment. The work of the Huntingdon staff and faculty members is, to use Wittgenstein’s phrase, to help the fly find its way out of the fly-bottle. Perrin’s essay is simultaneously a thoughtful diagnosis of the assumptions about vocation that our students often bring with them to college, an offer of an alternative perspective, and a detailed description of some of the pedagogical techniques that are needed to help students achieve a clearer understanding of their own vocations.

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 three important ways that faculty members and staff can contribute positively to the lives of their students and support the exploration of their callings. He suggests, first, that if students understand that they are called “not just to make a living, but also to make a life,” they will become better human beings and will enjoy more richly meaningful lives. Second, vocational reflection provides a way “out of the labyrinth”—away from the treadmill of meaningless engagement with ephemeral realities—and into a mode of pilgrimage, which Wadell describes as “a journey of hope.” And finally, he argues that a commitment to “living vocationally” is especially important in times of crisis, when our best-laid plans are constantly being upset by some new hard reality. Throughout the essay, Wadell 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 important role of vocational exploration and discernment 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, around 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’ efforts toward 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.

In our book reviews:

Joshua R. Sweeden (dean of the faculty and associate professor of Church and Society at Nazarene Theological Seminary) provides a review essay on vocation and the stewardship of place, intertwining his thoughts with Susan L. Maros’s Calling in Context: Social Location and Vocational Formation (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2022), Gordon T. Smith’s Your Calling Here and Now: Making Sense of Vocation (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2022), and Brent Waters’s Common Callings and Ordinary Virtues: Christian Ethics for Everyday Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2022).

John D. Barton (professor of teaching of religion and director of the Center for Faith and Learning at Pepperdine University) reviews editor David S. Cunningham’s Hearing Vocation Differently: Meaning, Purpose, and Identity in the Multi-Faith Academy (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2019).

Steven Bouma-Prediger (Maas Professor of Reformed Theology at Hope College) reviews Kiara Jorgenson’s Ecology of Vocation: Recasting Calling in a New Planetary Era (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books/Fortress Academic, 2020).

Krista E. Hughes (Muller Center for Exploration & Engagement at Newberry College) reviews Paul J. Wadell and Charles R. Pinches’s Living Vocationally: The Journey of the Called Life (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2021).

Larry G. Locke (McLane College of Business at University of Mary Hardin-Baylor and research fellow at LCC International University) reviews Mark Sampson’s The Promise of Social Enterprise: A Theological Exploration of Faithful Economic Practice (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2022).

Esteban E. Loustaunau (professor of Spanish and director of the Center for Purpose and Vocation at Assumption University) reviews Patrick B. Reyes’s, The Purpose Gap: Empowering Communities of Color to Find Meaning and Thrive with a forward by Starsky D. Wilson (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2021).

Robert Pampel (University Honors Program at Saint Louis University) reviews Ja- son A. Mahn’s Neighbor Love Through Fearful Days: Finding Purpose and Meaning in a Time of Crisis (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2021).

Hannah J. Stolze (associate professor of Supply Chain Management at Lipscomb Uni- versity) reviews Bryan J. Dik’s Redeeming Work: A Guide to Discovering God’s Calling for Your Career (West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton Press, 2020).

Thanks to our book review editor, Steve Oldham, for curating these reviews for this themed issue.

Cite this article
David S. Cunningham, “Vocation: An Idea Whose Time Has Come (Again)”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 52:4 , 3-8

David S. Cunningham

David S. Cunningham is professor of theology at Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and director of the Network for Vocation in Undergraduate Education (NetVUE) for the Council of Independent Colleges in Washington, DC.