We just celebrated our college graduation on Saturday. I teach a course on spiritual formation and vocational discernment. I believe that vocational discernment [finding your calling] is at the heart of young adult spiritual formation, perhaps all spiritual formation. The Reformation was a time when there was not only reformation of church and doctrine but a reformation of the concept of vocation. Here’s a brief history of vocation:
It began with Eusebius [263-339 CE], Bishop of Caesarea, who said that Christ gave two ways of life: Via Contemplativa, or the contemplative life, primarily lived by priests, nuns, and monks. In Protestant terms this would be ministers and missionaries who have a “call” from God. This was a sacred calling, those who have a calling, a vocation. Those who did not have a call from God engaged in the Via Activa, the life of work: soldiering, governing, farming, trading, and raising families. It was praised as noble and necessary, but secondary.
This created an obvious double standard. It is somewhat ironic in that the monastic movement had a reforming mission to call a secularized church back to radical discipleship, but instead it had a relaxing effect in that it called a few to radical discipleship and let everyone else off the hook.
Martin Luther corrected the Catholic distortion by saying, “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.” When he talked about vocation he liked to use the most mundane examples: “the father washing smelly diapers, the maid sweeping the floor, the brewer making good beer.” All work is God’s work.
Unfortunately, Protestantism brought its own distortion. Whereas the Catholic distortion is a spiritual dualism, the Protestant distortion is a kind of secular dualism. It reduces vocation to an alternative word for work. John Calvin sarcastically said in response to Libertines, “Let a brothel keeper ply his trade… let a thief steal boldly, for each is pursuing his vocation.” Protestant reformers agreed that judges had to sentence, soldiers had to kill, and slaves have to serve in order to fulfill their God-given, predestined calling in life. I think you can see the problems with this.
The Anabaptists questioned this because the uncritical acceptance of some occupations did not allow for any challenge of the existing social order. They believed that the existing social order was not according to God’s reign; and, that they were called to set up an alternative social order as a prophetic witness. This created tension for them in certain roles because those roles were part of an evil system, e.g. the magistrate [kill people], a merchant [horde goods from poor].
But this initially prophetic question helped to produce the “Anabaptist distortion” of withdrawal from society in later generations. They did good things, and did them ethically [some of the time], but only for their own benefit and not for the common good.
So with all these distortions in history, how can we develop a good theology of vocation today that is consistent with God’s purposes?