Vocation or calling? Meaning or purpose?
Part of the work of developing a richer theology of vocation is the work of translation: how to find meaningful and compelling terms to convey the depth of the concept in a culture that has largely lost the language of vocation.
Both our seminars—on Vocation across the Lifespan and on Vocation, Faith and the Professions—have encountered the linguistic challenge of exploring new terms for the complex concept traditionally called vocation.
In our project’s resources for congregations, we tend to use the terms “vocation” and “calling” interchangeably to allow people to interact with a variety of terms. (Check out Google’s ngram viewer on the changing frequency of these two words in American English over the past century.)
But there is a need to develop both theological and secular language in order to influence multiple spheres, as well as a need to offer diverse metaphors that encompass a range of human experiences. Consider these possibilities related to the idea of vocation:
- Sensory images: hearing a voice, seeing a path, feeling the right fit
- Emotive language: falling in love, feeling with the heart
- Physical metaphors: balancing, juggling; thirst, hunger
- Relational words: invitation, summons
- Action verbs: feeling drawn, pulled, pushed, nudged, lured
- Abstract nouns: dream, vision, imagination, passion; duty, responsibility, obligation
- Secular cognates: meaning, purpose, authenticity, integrity
Vocation is something more than self-fulfillment. But it is something less than the whole of the Christian life. So how exactly can we capture such a slippery yet critical idea, about how we are in relationship with God and with each other?
Part of the muddle comes from the multi-faceted nature of the concept itself. Vocation is both personal and public, individual and communal. It is an ontological reality with practical implications. It embraces the individual’s gifts and the neighbor’s needs, the personal quest and the common good. Holding all these tensions and dimensions together within one word is a daunting challenge indeed.
Another issue is denominational language. Some Christian traditions have associated vocation with ordained ministry; others have collapsed vocation into professional work. Furthermore, some of the terms Christians use to talk about their sense of calling need to be nuanced. For example, the catch-all phrase “God has a plan” raises complicated questions of providence. Calling professional work a “ministry” blurs the distinction between discipleship and leadership in the Christian community.
Conversations around questions of calling are not as simple as they may appear at first glance.
While our Seminars continue to debate what terms speak to today’s audiences, even more imaginative plays-on-words present themselves. What if churches aimed to help people live “vocationally”—that is, to see a wider perspective of their lives in relationship to God’s invitation? What would it mean to “vocate” our work or relationships?
How might we distinguish between the “big-C” Call shared by all Christians through baptism, and the “small-c” callings of the particularities of each person’s life and work? Do we have one Vocation or multiple vocations?
It turns out that what to call a calling is no simple question—perhaps trumped only by the prospect of living out one’s vocation, over a lifetime of learning to explore and express the deepest desires of the heart.
How would you define “vocation” and “calling”? What words in the list above speak to your life experience or relationship with God? What words would you add?