The idea (discussed earlier) of a “personal call” from God to a particular vocation has been a mainstay in evangelical (and, typically, all Protestant) circles since the Reformation. Not a Sunday goes by where the words “I feel God has called me…” isn’t uttered somewhere at any given church function. But what exactly do we mean when we say this? Obviously this is not an audible call. Some might argue that they have been given, through a direct link from the heavens, a thoroughly prophetic account of their future life, but clearly this is not the norm. So, what is the average Christian to do? Or even the minister-in-training? How are we to understand the idea of a “call to ministry”, or a “call” to any particular vocation?
First, it needs to be pointed out that this is a completely second-order theological matter. While the Scripture is our rule of faith, it has very little to say about a personal calling outside that of the “salvific call” of Paulinism. Little hints are given in the epistolary sections of the New Testament concerning how to live one’s vocational life ethically amidst a spiritually hostile environment, but our situation is much more contextual. We must understand the plight of “vocational understanding” in a 21st century Western Capitalist world; where Christianity is yesterday’s news, and everything is oriented towards the endless flow of capital. That means we cannot simply proof-text our calling. Our minds need the enlightening that the Spirit gives through an intimate, tacit knowledge of the Word of God and that (or whom) to which it witnesses. But first, a history lesson is required.
During the Medieval period, a personal calling to a specific vocation, other than to the clergy, was unheard of. Monks were called to lives on the fringes, and priests were called to lives of celibacy. Other than these selected few, no one else was given a clue as to their purpose in life. All that mattered to the common man was that he obey the church and take the sacraments, so that his salvation may be secure. But all of this changed with the Reformation.
Luther and Calvin effectively ended the clergy/laity divide. These two theological giants correctly contended for the priesthood of all believers. Therefore, it wasn’t just the clergy that was called by God, but all Christians were called to utilize their vocational status for the glory of God. In our terms, there is just as much spiritual utility in cleaning the bathrooms of a church as there is in preaching from its pulpit. However, this line of reasoning took an unexpected turn over the next few centuries.
As Max Weber persuasively argued in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, it was Calvinistic Christianity that psychologically emboldened the pioneering of early Capitalism. Whereas Medieval Catholicism spurned the excesses of the money-making lifestyle, Reformational religiosity necessitated it. The logic, in Weber’s terms, is this:
1) Every layperson was to pour as much energy, and as much zeal, as possible into his secular vocation.
2) Typically, those who engaged in this level of occupational exertion would accumulate more wealth than those who only worked hard enough to make a living.
3) This trumped the idea of work as a means to an end (One works in order to play better – a Renaissance ideal), and replaced it with “work” as an end in itself (i.e. as glorifying to God).
4) However, while this led to the mass accumulation, and centralization, of wealth, it also forbade its spending. Early Protestants didn’t give as much to their church as the Catholics – icons were forbidden, and fiscal corruption was essentially eliminated within the church writ large. Likewise, the poor were no longer cared for by the ecclesial welfare state, as beggary was frowned upon because its adherents were expected to work for their money. Most of all, the simple, austere lifestyle of early Protestants contrasted greatly with the wasteful spending and luxurious standard of living of the secular elite.
5) All of this led to the investment of money – and the beginning of the capitalist spirit.
Weber summarizes his thesis like this: “A specifically bourgeois economic ethic had grown up. With the consciousness of standing in the fullness of God’s grace and being visibly blessed by Him, the bourgeois business man, as long as he remained within the bounds of formal correctness, as long as his moral conduct was spotless and the use to which he put his wealth was not objectionable, could follow his pecuniary interests as he would and feel that he was fulfilling a duty in doing so.”
It wasn’t long after this, a century or so, before the spiritual underpinnings of society began to erode. Eventually, capitalism was thought to be able to pull itself up by its own bootstraps. Religion could remain a private affair, but it was no longer needed to justify the capitalist ethos. This is why Benjamin Franklin could sound exactly like Luther and Calvin regarding vocational integrity without actually believing anything they taught. Weber saw these results as haunting: “The Puritan wanted to work in calling; we are forced to do so. For when asceticism was carried out of monastic cells into everyday life, and began to dominate worldly morality, it did its part in building the tremendous cosmos of the modern economic order. This order is now bound to the technical and economic conditions of machine production which today determine the lives of all the individuals who are born into this mechanism, not only those directly concerned with economic acquisition, with irresistible force. Perhaps it will so determine them until the last ton of fossilized coal is burnt.” Weber called this the disenchantment of the world that was so peculiar to secularized western societies.
So, what does all of this have to do with my calling? The point I am attempting to make is that globalization, the ever-growing universal nature of capitalism’s domain, is a ferocious beast. When religion’s prohibition on immoral excesses has been erased, then accumulation of wealth leads from discretion to extravagance. With the demise of the Protestant spirit, and its ethical domestication, overindulgence has become the new sacrament. In other words, in contemporary society, God is dead… And we have killed Him. When Christians act as if the Reformational understanding of vocational calling is still tenable without contextual revision, they betray the gospel’s call to view the kingdom as here-and-now, as a flesh-and-blood reality that has been inaugurated by Christ and that we are called to enact through charity and community worship.
When we understand our lives, and its attendant purpose and meaning, through the matrix of the Christian narrative found in Scripture, we quickly begin to see where vocation fits in. With Christ, the kingdom has begun, and when He returns it will invade with full force. As Christians, and in our daily lives (including our work), we are to anticipate this very same kingdom-dwelling that our faith promises to the world. With the kingdom of God as our one and only trajectory, the Church may once again find its way amongst the host of competing claims to significance offered by the world.