Rediscovering Vocation: A Historical Perspective

A dairymaid can milk cows to the glory of God. If your job is shoveling manure, than do your best and shovel that manure for the glory of God.”

Martin Luther

I am convinced that one of central problems in our modern society is a lack of meaning in daily life, a sense that our actions are devoid of connection to a greater whole. When people discuss finding meaning in life, they often discuss whether or not we can find a purpose to our actions. In this abstract of a paper from a psychology journal (disclaimer: I did not read the entire article) the writers argue that meaning in life has two components: comprehension and purpose. Comprehension is described as something that encompasses people’s ability to find patterns, consistency, and significance in the many events and experiences in their lives, and their synthesis and distillation of the most salient, important, and motivating factors.” Purpose, in their view, “refers to highly motivating, long-term goals about which people are passionate and highly committed.” Both of these definitions have an individualistic bent to them, conveying the idea that meaning is an individual pursuit that a person must figure out in the seclusion of their own thoughts. 

 I would argue that both meaning and purpose are derived from connection, something that is illustrated in Frederick Buechner’s well known quote, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” It is seeing how our gifts, talents, and yearning desires can be united in an overarching plan to satisfy a genuine need that provides the sort of connection from which meaning can be derived. It is when we recognize that our unique gifts and dreams are not just random bits of oddness that have no useful place in this world, but rather can be combined with the strangeness of our fellow human beings talents and longings into something of great consequence in a way that gives some of us the sneaking suspicion that there truly is a divine presence at work behind it all. The issue for most of us, particularly in the Western world, is that we live in such an individualistically oriented and fragmented society that those connections can be hard to recognize. 

I want to take a look at the idea of vocation as one of the most important areas through which we can rediscover meaning through connection, particularly when filtering this idea through a specifically theological lens. In this post I will first give a short history/etymology from a theology perspective, then in subsequent posts dive into some thoughts on how we can learn from this to rediscover a sense of vocation in our modern societies. 

The word vocation is derived from the Latin vocatio, meaning a calling, summons or invitation, and then more recently from the Old French word vocacion, meaning a call, consecration, calling, or profession. The word took on an increased spiritual significance during the middle ages as monasteries were founded for monks to follow their call from God to the contemplative life. Influenced by the Greeks who regarded leisure and philosophy as the ideal pursuits, medieval Christianity held the contemplative life in higher regard than manual labor (see this essay by Jane Dawson for more details). A person’s vocation was found in answering God’s call away from the daily hustle and bustle of ordinary work and into a quieter life seeking after God in contemplation. Scholar Alistair Mackenzie writes:

 “…Augustine distinguished between the ‘active life’ (vita activa) and the ‘contemplative life’ (vita contemplativa). While both kinds of life were good, and Augustine had praise for the work of farmers, craftsmen and merchants, the contemplative life was of a higher order.”

Mackenzie notes that it was later German theologians Miester Eckhart and Johannes Tauler who begin to argue that the call of God was just as spiritual on those serving in the ‘active life’ as those called to the ‘contemplative life’, and that there was a sense of vocational equality rather than the hierarchical roles advocated by the Greeks. Martin Luther continued in this line of German thinkers, becoming a strong advocate for the view that everyone had a vocational calling from God, a view expressed in his quote,

 “Therefore I advise no one to enter any religious order or the priesthood, indeed, I advise everyone against it – unless he is forearmed with this knowledge and understands that the works of monks and priests, however holy and arduous they may be, do not differ one whit in the sight of God from the works of the rustic laborer in the field or the woman going about her household tasks, but that all works are measured before God by faith alone.”

Protestants such as John Calvin and the Puritans continued to develop the concept of vocation, albeit in a world that was starting to be impacted by the secularizing influence of the Enlightenment. According to Mackenzie, the Puritans began to emphasize a more individualistic approach to work, while giving work a greater spiritual value in and of itself. While these values helped transform the nature of work into a more serious idea of a ‘vocation’, the decline in spirituality as well as change in economic systems (particularly in the industrial revolution) in the broader society began to undermine the teaching of the church. Work was now primarily a way to make income, and the idea of a divine calling began to be secondary if not completely absent from the thoughts of many people. 

The industrial revolution made monumental changes in many aspects of human society: the relationship of people to the land as agriculture declined in importance, the change in relationship between people and machines (machines begin to dictate circumstances), and the change in family relations as first men began to work away from home, and then entire families worked long hours in unsafe factory conditions. Mackenzie notes the disappointing response of the church,

At the same time as the industrialized world embarked on this process of rapid change the Church began to lose influence among the working classes. Because it wanted to retain the patronage of the industrial nouveaux riches the church did not interfere to challenge the ruthless exploitation of workers”. 

 It is in this environment that Karl Marx and others begin to fill the void left by the church, advocating for the common worker. The fact that the rise of these economic and political philosophies was initiated by unmet needs within society that were left largely unaddressed by the Protestant Church is a dynamic that I think has been missed by many conservative Christian critics of communism and socialism.

This is a very brief survey of a historical Christian position on the idea of vocation and is intended to provide some background to help us to understand how we arrived at our current understanding of work and vocation. From this we can draw lessons to help us rediscover a sense of vocation as a divine calling, as well as try to understand how the pitfalls the church has made historically are still affecting various aspects of society today. 

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4 thoughts on “Rediscovering Vocation: A Historical Perspective”

  1. Thanks for sharing. I especially was impacted by the line “the rise of these economic and political philosophies was initiated by unmet needs with in society that were left largely unaddressed by the Protestant Church is a dynamic that I think has been missed by many conservative Christian critics of communism and socialism”. I had not really thought of this as a concrete link before, but upon reflection I think you have an excellent point.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Heather. I learned a lot through the research for this post. I believe this is a topic that we should be discussing more in our churches, so I am glad to bring some light to it.

      Liked by 2 people

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