#5 post based on footnotes in my new book, Spirituality With Clothes On. This one expands the note on p.66 from James Fowler in his book, Becoming Adult, Becoming Christian.
Today I delivered a workshop on “Spiritual Formation and Vocational Discernment.” For those who were at the workshop and actually go to my website, here’s something I did not mention—some interesting tidbits on the history of vocational distortions. It also adds to the above quote for book readers, and hopefully stands on its own for other readers who may happen upon my site.
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 considered secular and secondary. 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 [1483-1446] 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.
So with all these distortions in history, how can we develop a good theology of vocation that is consistent with God’s purposes?
This is the background to James Fowler’s definition of vocation: “Vocation is the response a person makes with her or his total self to the calling of God for partnership in God’s purposes.”
Stand by for my next and last post on the series based on my new book where I will discuss the analogy and why you should keep your clothes on when exploring an authentic spirituality. If you are in Winnipeg, come to my Manitoba book launch at the beautiful new Marpeck Commons at CMU on Friday at 3:00 PM.