Vocation in the economy of God (i)

Vocation has always been an important term for the Church of England as it thinks about patterns of ministry, and it has recently been hitting the headlines as the ‘number of vocations’ has been increasing, particularly amongst the young. But ‘vocation’ is also a common term in wider culture; once you are aware of it, you will hear it used in all sorts of places. But its common use—both within and outside the church—doesn’t correspond well with the way vocation, or calling, is talked about in the narrative of scripture.

I notice five interrelated features of the way calling is used in contemporary discourse.

1. Individuation. Vocation is commonly used to describe that unique role that I have in the world, and my unique contribution to it.

2. Interiorisation. Most people, when talking about vocation, refer to a deep inner sense of purpose that has driven them to the role or occupation that they currently have. I recently read about a young actress who was telling the story of how she came to be in acting:

She wrote a letter to Branagh asking him for advice. “I explained that my parents didn’t want me to act, but that I felt it was my vocation in life,” she said. Branagh’s sister replied: “Kenneth says that if you feel such a strong need to be an actress, you must be an actress”.

This focus on interior feelings has long been a feature of the Church of England’s exploration of vocation to ordained ministry. ‘How long have you felt called to be a priest?’ I confess to being rather nervous of this approach when entering the process in the 1980s, since as an extravert and an evangelical, my thinking was much more focussed outward than inward. But not all are happy with this focus on interiorisation any more:

As a DDO I got somewhat weary of people saying they felt called to be a priest … and then get rattled if I asked what they were doing to bear witness to that call to ‘be’…

3. Stratification. Very often the language of vocation is related to the creation of a distinct vocational ‘caste’. So there are certain roles, the ‘caring professions’, to which one might have a ‘vocation’, but this certainly isn’t seen as a general approach to life.

We had a testimony from a guy in church. He was a train driver. He was called by God to do it, and he saw driving trains as his vocation. It was a powerful testimony about God’s leading in an individual’s life.

The striking this about this comment is that it is so unusual. When my DDO wrote to me in 1987 (in an actual letter, which I have kept and came across when doing some sorting last week), he talked in terms of ‘exploring my vocation’—meaning my sense of call to ordination. Even now, it is very common to see ‘vocation’ in the Church only used in reference to ordination, or perhaps at a stretch to lay readership or licensed lay ministry, as if ‘vocation’ only applied to a certain spiritual elite, but not to ordinary peopler.

4. Self-actualisation. It is quite common to hear people talk about vocation—both inside and outside Christian ministry and faith—as the thing which they love, which gives them a sense of purpose, and confirms they are using their gifts profitably.

I chose my vocation when I was 7 years old and never changed my mind. It was something I was very good at and made me very happy and fulfilled.

At the end of a long day of teaching and meeting with students, I am reminded of how much I love teaching. Its not a job, it is a calling and passion.

This seems to be quite a strong contrast to the use of the term in previous generations, where the language of vocation was used about something costly, and the sense of satisfaction came from the role being worthwhile, rather than inherently rewarding.

5. Marginalisation. In an online discussion, someone posted this diagram illustrating the Japanese concept of ikigai, that which makes life worth living. It is noticeable that vocation is rather marginalised here, and that it is associated with something that you can earn your living by—which isn’t always the case! But in a culture which increasingly values things in proportion to their financial worth, ‘vocation’ is bound to be marginalised. As another friend commented:

‘Vocation’ is a description which allows employers to justify paying you less than comparable jobs in the ‘commercial world’.

It is important to say that not all of the things above are all negative. When we are able to do something that we love and find rewarding, or that we have had a deep impulse to do, that might not be a bad thing! But are these the measure of how scripture understands ‘calling’ and vocation? Across the biblical narrative, the calling of God comes at numerous critical points.

1. God’s calling the world into existence

Although the creation accounts in Genesis 1 and 2 don’t mention ‘calling’ as such, the voice of God is central to the action. There is a sense in which God’s voice calls creation into being. The idea that God creates ex nihilo, from nothing (rather than working with pre-existing material which is self-generating or self-sustaining) is important in apologetic discussions about the origins of the universe: although science is in the business of answering questions, when it comes to the biggest question of all (‘why is there something rather than nothing?’) science is not equipped to offer an answer. But it also has important pastoral and personal implications. I did not choose to be born; theologically, I was called into existence by the will of God. Clearly, my parents had a role to play (!) but I didn’t choose who my parents were, and I have not chosen the personality, temperament or aptitudes that I have been given.

Some years ago I remember being in conversation with a member of our congregation in a previous church who was struggling with their own personality. I felt I needed to say: ‘Who you are is God’s gift to you’. We are called into being by a sovereign, creator God.

2. God’s call of Abraham

In Genesis 12, God calls Abram to leave his home and go to a place where God will lead him. The text offers a threefold emphasis on the disruption to Abram’s natural patterns of affiliation, loyalty and security.

Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. (Gen 12.1)

But this command has a past reference as well as a future one. We read in the previous verses that Abram’s father Terah had left Ur in order to go to Canaan, but had settled half way at Harran instead. So God’s call to Abram was actually a completion of his incomplete inheritance. Yet God’s call was also about leaning into the future. Not only had God not shown Abram the land, but the promise he receives there (‘I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky’ Gen 15.5) is one that he cannot possibly see realised, since it relates to the distant future.

One of my favourite films at the moment is Arrival. Without too many spoilers, the essence of the film is the question: if you knew what would happen to you in the future as a result of decisions in the present, would you still make those decisions? But in fact the notion of God’s call offers the opposite challenge: will you answer God’s call not knowing what the consequences will be? Not knowing the future is a fundamental part of what it means to be creaturely—finite, limited and trusting.

3. God’s call of Israel

If you look at a map of the whole world, it is striking how small the country of Israel is. If you were going to choose a nation to change the world, you probably wouldn’t want to start from here. (Many people believe that a much better choice is a large country to the West across the sea. After all, it has money, resources and a superior philosophy of life to share…) But God is quite clear:

The Lord did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. But it was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath he swore to your ancestors that he brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the land of slavery, from the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt. (Deut 7.7–8)

The call of God makes the insignificant significant, and confounds the wisdom of the world with its apparent foolishness. And yet it is clear that this call can be resisted, and God lives in the tension between call and rejection which arises from his uncoercive invitation:

When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. But the more they were called, the more they went away from me. (Hos 11.1–2)

The fact that the call of God of his people is now known of throughout the world is testimony to the triumph of God’s grace. When on a study trip to Israel earlier this year, I asked our Jewish guide about his attitude to Christians. ‘You have taken our book and given it to the world. Without you, who would have heard of the Ten Commandments?’

4. God’s call of prophetic individuals

The classic example of ‘vocation’ or God’s calling in the Old Testament is the calling of particular individuals to exercise a prophetic ministry, in turn calling God’s people back to faithfulness and repentance from their sin and idolatry. The call of Isaiah is usually read at ordination services:

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphs, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another: 

  “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.”

At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke. “Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty.” (Isaiah 6.1–5)

This is no gentle recognition of an inner longing! It is a terrifying, threatening, disruptive encounter with the mysterium tremendum et fascinans. Can you imagine the noise—the beating of wings, the ringing echoes of the song, the swirling of the air, the taste of dust. It is an experience of awe, terror and incomprehension, disrupting and threatening Isaiah’s life and ultimately the life of God’s people.

Amos was clear that he was not, by nature, a prophet, but had been called by God from his natural ‘vocation’ (Amos 7.14). Jeremiah was told ‘Today I have made you a fortified city, an iron pillar and a bronze wall to stand against the whole land’ (Jer 1.18), hardly a warm invitation to cosy pastoral ministry. And Jonah fled in horror at the notion of the grace and forgiveness of God. Such is the nature of God’s call on individuals.

(This is the outline of the first half of my keynote address to Chichester Diocesan Conference. To be completed in a second post).

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18 thoughts on “Vocation in the economy of God (i)”

  1. Fascinating. As a doctor I find the Anglican concept of “their vocation” generally very selfish and navel gazing. The ordained’ concept of vocation seems very exclusive and also patronising.

    • I think there is something in that (ordained/ vocation ring fence). It links with the misuse of the term ‘laity’ and the call of God on every Christian.

      “Vocation” was also a term often used about and by doctors regarding their own career. I dont know whether it’s as common now. There was that same sense of superiority you have mentioned. 😉

      In truth is it a middle class thing?

  2. Curiously, if one reads about the great saints in the Old and New Testaments who were used effectively by God, more often or not they didn’t want the job.

  3. I have certainly objected vigorously at various times in my life to what God has called me to do! I worry that these days so many Christians seem to assume that ‘fulfilling one’s vocation’ means ‘having a nice, fulfilled life with God’s blessing’. We’ve lost the understanding of the necessity, inevitability of sacrifice in serving God. This gives us a very superficial understanding of vocation which of course is what you’re dealing with. I look forward to Part 2.

    • You didn’t get it? (Spoiler: look away now!)

      The desperately poignant thing at the end is that when Jenner says ‘Shall we make a baby?’ he does not know what that will mean, but from the opening sequence at the start of the film, we know that she does. So he makes the decision to be a father in ignorance; she agrees to be a mother in the full knowledge of the suffering and loss that will entail. (Is there a parallel with the annunciation, ‘and a sword will pierce your heart…?’).

      It looks as though he has the easier decision. But there is a sense in which not knowing is harder–and it is the lot of all of us. Anyone who has children is constantly at the risk of unknown loss and hurt.

      Does that help?

      • OK, thanks.
        I think I did pick that up but being a science nerd I was more interested in the aliens and what they were thinking! ?

        • Within the narrative, they are simply looking for help—but doing so by provoking humanity to collaboration (cross-over to Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman…?!). From outside the narrative, the aliens are just a (well developed) character foil to the real story: the existential question of how we live as time-limited creatures. Twas ever thus with science fiction…

  4. One thing that has puzzled me is that many priests and minsters gain the view that if ‘God has called them’ then that calling must be permanent.
    Could it not be that ‘vocation’ could be but for a season and then you go back to truck driving, tent making or whatever it was you did before?

  5. Insightful as usual, but very surprised to see you conflate ethnic Israel with the (modern) ‘country of Israel’. They are two completely different things, not least because around half of modern Israel’s citizens are secular/cultural Jews with little or no faith in God. Indeed, you yourself have said that the two Israels are different when addressing whether ethnic Israel still has ‘a divine right to the land’!

    • I think the conflation is pretty obvious!

      As I commented on Facebook, in the section ‘God’s call of Israel’, you invite us to reflect on how small Israel is. It must be the modern state established in 1948, because you refer to ‘a map of the whole world’ rather than (say) the maps of Biblical Palestine found in Bibles (NB they don’t show Israel as a place, because Israel was a tribe or a people). You then state that if you wanted to change the world, you wouldn’t start from such a small nation. But it was ethnic Israel which gave us Jesus, who changed the world, not the modern state. You also invoke Deuteronomy 7:7-8 to say that size doesn’t matter in God’s eyes, except that this passage relates to ethnic Israel.

  6. Heavens above! I find myself in almost total agreement with you. I particularly dislike the interiorisation of vocation. My reading of biblical and church history is that a lot of the best vocations were unsought and came from outside. Often they were resisted – think of Chrysostom! I have never had a fluffy sense of interior vocation to ministry that I buffed up – just an uncomfortable compulsion to do what I thought I was being asked to do, one step at a time – which I then checked out with lots of other people. Without their confirmation I would never have had the nerve to do it. I wanted to be a cellist or an architect.

  7. As someone with no call to the Anglican ordained ministry, I appreciate what you say. Your train driver is very wise, and your Jewish guide was(almost) unbelievably gracious.

  8. Very good

    I’ve heard all the spurious definitions you describe. But one extra nuance – perhaps in your subtext – is people using that sense of subjective calling to vocation to establish and protect their career and sense of identity

    I think of a liberal Catholic priest who told me that his calling to his priestly vocation (he was unwilling to clearly define either) meant that he had all the charisms in the church and no-one else did. It felt curiously as if he were saying “I don’t have lots of the advantages that go with the occupations of other people in my church, but this gives me undeniable and unchallengable status in the community instead”

    When I asked what it was like for him to be the one recipient of all those gifts for his church he replied “oh man, I can’t even describe it in a way someone who isn’t a priest will understand”

    The thought that his job might be to facilitate, equip and release others who might be more gifted was unwelcome, threatening and incomprehensible to him. He dismissed it entirely using his subjective and ill-defined (but no doubt institutionally-affirmed) notion of vocation as if no further argument was necessary

    I suspect this example is not unusual


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