Reivew of Vocation: Discerning Our Calling in Life
By Elizabeth Galbraith, Visiting Associate Professor of Religion
My colleague Doug Schuurman's new book is about recovering the power of vocation to infuse all of life with religious meaning, and he looks to Reformation theology for the seeds of that recovery. Both Luther and Calvin, he argues, invested even the most mundane activities with a religious significance the Catholic Church of their day restricted to monastic or ecclesial activities alone. Maintaining that all relational spheres - domestic, political, economic, cultural - are religiously and morally meaningful, the Reformers developed a more expansive concept of vocation.
Some theologians, hesitant to confer religious meaning on secular life, resist this more expansive interpretation, but Schuurman demonstrates that a biblical case can be made for what the Reformers were doing. Others attempt to limit the notion of vocation
to paid work, an unfortunate and incorrect restriction of the doctrine in Schuurman's view. Popular misuses of the concept lead to its equation with 'self-fulfillment', whereas according to Schuurman vocation is first of all about recognizing all of life's relational spheres - paid and unpaid work included - as places for service to God and neighbor, rather than as means to self-fulfillment.
Schuurman's is not, however, an uncritical recovery of the Reformers' concept of vocation. Sensitive to abuses, including in particular the way in which the Reformation concept of vocation has been used to confine women to positions of subordination in relationship to men, Schuurman does not shy away from the reality that the Protestant doctrine of vocation has proven complicit in the sexism of culture and society. Instead, he constructively argues that just as the Reformers' conception of vocation resisted a sacred/secular dualism by infusing the secular with religious meaning, so the doctrine of vocation can and should be used today to resist the dualisms that help sustain sexism and other societal abuses.
In addition to constructive critique, Schuurman's account of vocation is also ecumenical.
Demonstrating persuasively that the Catholic tradition, especially since Vatican II, has widened its sense of vocation in ways that are entirely consistent with the main argument of this text, and that the Orthodox Church will also find much in this concept of vocation that resonates with its traditions, Schuurman resists an exclusively Protestant in favor ultimately of a 'Christian' conception of vocation.
According to Schuurman, the doctrine of vocation provides a solid, integrative center for all of life and he calls upon churches as well as church-related colleges to lead the way in a recovery of an appropriate doctrine of vocation. Church related colleges have the potential, he suggests, to become crucial avenues for expanding and deepening a sense of calling in students, faculty, administration and staff. Schuurman's theologically astute and impressively accessible account of 'life as vocation' shows us how.