Wednesday, August 4

Thoughtful Thursday: Vocation — A Calling Without a Caller


This is our second post from our resident skeptic, James (Jim) Cowles. Jim has an eclectic background (read his bio at the end) to say the least and will be our spiritual skeptic (he is an atheist). Keeping us honest in our wonderings about all things divine and challenging our thinking. Here is an invitation to think about what is our responsibility on this Thoughtful Thursday.

A reminder about what Thoughtful Thursday is: Theos – God, Logos – Words. So, literally, theos-logos, theology, is words about God. These are some of my favorite thoughts! I ask myself what is my relationship to the Divine? What is the Divine’s relationship to others? Other people? Other things? Other components of the world? Other components of the cosmos? How can we stretch our thoughts to be more, simply more? What are your theos-logos? What questions would you ponder? 

One of the most romantic-sounding, and therefore one of the most dangerous, ideas in monotheistic religion is the idea of "vocation" or "calling".  (The former term is most often used in the Catholic Church; the latter, in the Protestant.  But they are synonyms.) If you are Catholic, you are told that everyone in the Church has a "vocation". If you are Protestant, you are told that "God has a marvelous plan for your life", and that the cornerstone of that plan is your "calling".  Your vocation -- I'll settle on the Catholic term purely for the sake of brevity -- is the task or gift or talent or station in life to which you are "called". ("Vocation" comes from the Latin root "vocare", meaning "to call", and shares the same root with the Latin "vox", meaning "voice".) Your vocation may be a particular marital status -- single or married -- or a particular career choice (especially, though not exclusively, religious) like lawyer, priest, engineer, doctor, nun, nurse, etc.  You are told that finding your vocation is a matter of vital importance, because (a) your vocation, whatever it may turn out to be, is that task or station in life which is best suited to make use of your gifts and talents and passions (loving a person in marriage, ministering to others as a priest or nun or nurse), and in general practicing a profession that will enable you to utilize your interests and aptitudes to their fullest; and (b), arguably even more important, your particular vocation is -- for you -- your particular channel to the Voice of God in your life.  Everyone "hears" the Voice of God, the argument goes, but one's vocation uniquely tailors that Voice to the circumstances of one's life.  Everyone gets the Divine cable signal, but your vocation is the particular channel to which you are tuned.

dont_hang_upSo finding your vocation is nothing less than a matter of listening for, hearing, and obeying the very Voice of Almighty God in your life, speaking to you in a way that S/He speaks to no one else. Furthermore, and most important of all, identifying and pursuing one's vocation is tantamount to obeying that Voice and consequently to doing what God tells you to do. Not finding and pursuing your vocation is -- not exactly explicitly sinful -- but a sure and certain mark of spiritual, even moral, torpor, accedie, and apathy. I say this is a romantic-sounding idea of monotheistic Christianity -- actually of monotheism generally -- because, in order for there to be a Call, there has to be a Caller, which requires, not the Void of classical Taoism or the Om of Hinduism, or an impersonal Force a la Star Wars -- but a personal, even intimately personal, God Who numbers the hairs of one's head and providentially supervises the events of one's life. So for monotheistic religions, finding, pursuing, realizing, and obeying one's vocation -- husband / wife, priest, engineer, attorney, etc. -- is a matter of literally transcendent, in all senses of that adjective, importance. It is, in fact, the Purpose of one's life.

kneelerThe beginning of the quest for one's vocation is, for many (most? all?) Christians, marked some particularly significant life-event or transition. In my wife Diane's and my case, this "tipping-point" moment came when we decided to get married. (We still argue to this day about whether I asked her, as I believe, or she asked me, as she believes.) So important was this decision that, after much prayer, reflection, and Bible-reading, and after seeking the counsel of Christian friends -- these were the terms we thought in almost 30 years ago -- we decided that I should return to school, get my doctorate, and pursue a teaching vocation and campus ministry at some university or college. So we pulled up stakes in Wichita, KS, where we were living at the time, and moved to Boston, where Diane got a job as a librarian in the library system of Brookline, MA, I got a job working on the Strategic Defense Initiative with the MITRE Corp., and I began working on my doctorate part-time in English literature (eventually with a specialization in lit-crit and interpretation theory), first at Harvard, then at Tufts, and finishing up at Exeter College of Oxford University in 1988. Boston was torture: like the Boston Catholic Church -- huge, impersonal, and monolithic. I finished the degree, but by the time I did so, I was subject to recurring black periods of clinical, perhaps even pre-suicidal, depression. But we stuck with it because we were -- so we thought at the time -- obeying the Voice of God.

Finally, unable to endure any more of the Boston agony, we decided that I should go back to work for Boeing -- a known quantity, since I had worked there for almost 15 years before going to Boston -- this time in Seattle. So we quit our Boston jobs, Diane got a job as a librarian with the Seattle Public Library system (where she still works), and I, a job as a web developer with Boeing. But the "vocation" bug -- I think of it as an Ebola-Zaire-like virus now -- would not leave us alone. So after about 10 years working for Boeing, I quit and went to Seattle University full time to get a degree in theology (MAPS) in order to prepare to teach "Catholic stuff" in the parishes of the Seattle Archdiocese. I had an excellent experience teaching in my internship, and was looking forward to doing so professionally and full time. But just as I was finishing my degree, the Seattle Archdiocese took a severe lurch to the "hard right", and teaching opportunities for non-ordained people dried up faster than a Denver snow in late April.

Vocation_signs_2So Diane and I abandoned altogether any vision or ambition for any kind of teaching "vocation". The fallout from that decision was almost as bad for us as my clinical depression was in Boston. We still believed that we were, especially that I was, called by God to that "vocation". So we did a lot of soul-searching -- in fact, an obsessive amount -- to determine if we were "right with God", if we were "following God's will", and if our abandoning the original "vocation" amounted to disobeying God. To our credit, we never, not once, turned on one another as a couple. Instead, after several years --this is obviously the Reader's Digest condensed version of the story -- we identified the real enemy, the real disease: the whole idea of a God-inspired vocation. Eventually, I extended this belief to the Disease even being God and monotheistic Christianity -- in fact, monotheistic religion in general, though that is a rant for another time.

The main problem with the concept of vocation -- not only for us, but even more so for others --is that one invokes the "call" / "vocation" whenever one faces a decision of such all-determining importance that one wants, perhaps unconsciously, to escape responsibility for the decision. This was certainly the case with Diane and me, we both came to realize in retrospect. You face a life-changing decision about what to do in your life: marry or stay single, marry this person or that, become a priest / minister or not, follow this or that profession, etc., etc. Making the wrong decision has the potential to wreak ruin in your whole life. On this particularly critical issue, you (believe you) cannot afford to pay the price of being wrong. You need certitude, assurance that you are making the right choice. Yet you know that you make mistakes. You can be wrong. So you turn to God and -- again, perhaps unconsciously -- piggy-back on God's omniscience. You can make mistakes. But God cannot. So, with that infinite capacity for telling yourself what you want to hear that you share with the rest of the human species, you fool yourself into believing that you hear the Voice of God calling you to ... well ... do what you wanted to do anyway, but were so afraid of being wrong that you were afraid to accept the responsibility that goes with deciding out of your own human autonomy. You copped out. And instead of saying "I want to do X", you say "God is calling me to do X". With this simple phrase, you kill two birds with one stone: you fob off responsibility onto God, and you (at least believe you) attain certitude about making the right decision.

But these 2 achievements carry with them a potentially exorbitant price. What if, after all, you end up making the wrong decision? What if you marry the wrong person? What if you choose the wrong occupation? There are three possibilities, none of them good. You either (1) did not hear the Voice of God correctly, or (2) God did not or could not make your vocation clear, or (3) God was just playing with you. In case (1), you can, as Diane and I did, put yourself through all manner of self-recrimination about not "praying enough" or "not listening closely enough" or ... etc. In case (2), you draw the conclusion, as we did, that since God is a limited God, God is not trustworthy enough to rely on for certitude. Case (3) is the worst of all, because it means that God is just as Gloucester says in "King Lear": "As flies to wanton boys are we to th' gods. / They kill us for their sport".

By following the path of a "vocation", you also open yourself up, if you are a devout religious believer, to all manner of insoluble theological conundra. Consider the pedophilia crisis in the Catholic Church. I'd be willing to wager that, if you asked a pedophilic priest about being a priest, he would stoutly aver that God "called" him to that state. If that is true, and if (1)-(3) above are not true, then we are left with the conclusion God has no particular problem "calling" men to the priesthood who have a propensity toward pedophilia and child molestation:  God knew quite well about their tendencies, but called them, anyway. In this case, if God is neither stupid nor absent. H/She is merely apathetic at best -- and actively malicious at worst. The fact that vanishingly few, in fact, almost no, religious believers follow this fatal logic of "vocation" to such a bitter end does not make the end less bitter or less inevitable.

This is the kind of Tar Baby you always take hold of if you are foolish enough to think of your decisions in terms of an answer some Divine call. The following is my four-word solution: leave God the hell out of it, either because you don't / no longer believe in God, or because succumbing to cowardice and dragooning God into your personal decisions is fraught with more potential for emotional and spiritual disaster / abuse than it is worth. Understand up front that, even for a religious believer, living your life and making your decisions are your responsibilities, not God's. If you are a man and want to be a priest, have the balls to say "I am going to seminary because I want to be a priest". If you are a woman and want to be a nun, have the ovaries to say "I am entering the novitiate because I want to be a nun". You may still make a bad, even disastrous, decision. (If you want a guarantee, go buy a lawn mower from Sears.) But it will be your decision, and you can deal with the consequences in purely "horizontal" terms without the fatal complication of suborning Divine intervention. So don't attempt to baptize your own, idiosyncratic desire by immersing it in God-language. You just might drown in your own holy water.


James Cowles


(c) 2013, James Cowles, All Rights Reserved

JAMES COWLES is a weekly contributing author. Married to Diane for 29 years, going on 30 (as of 18 Aug ’14), no kids.  I retired in 2010 after 30+ years as, at various times, an engineer, software developer, and software development manager with the Boeing Co.  Diane works as a librarian at the Beacon Hill Branch of the Seattle Public Library system.  I have a master’s in math from Wichita State Univ, a master’s in physics as a Woodrow Wilson Fellow from Tulane, a master’s in English lit from Tufts by way of Harvard and, as a Council of Europe Fellow, Oxford (Exeter College … same Oxford college as JRR Tolkien), and a master’s in theology (MAPS) from Seattle Univ.  My main current interest is constitutional history and theories of constitutional interpretation (my area of specialization at Tufts / Harvard / Oxford  was postmodernist / deconstructionist interpretation theory).  I’m currently auditing a class in advanced constitutional law at the UW law school, and plan to audit another class on the First Amendment next quarter, plus take a Coursera non-credit course in “con law” from one of my heroes Prof. Akhil Amar at Yale Law early in ’14.  I am a “born-again” skeptic / atheist / agnostic (depending on what I ate for breakfast on any given morning) and equally “born-again” progressive who believes that anchorman Will McAvoy’s rant against the Tea Party as the “American Taliban” in the first episode of “The Newsroom” — which, if you don’t watch, you should — was far too charitable to the Tea Party and an insult to the Taliban, who are much more enlightened than, e.g., Rick Santorum and Michele Bachmann.  I believe that the “minimal state” as advocated in Robert Nozick’s “Anarchy, State, and Utopia” is a fine goal — but only for “minimal people”. I also believe the greatest threat to America’s tradition of ordered liberty under the US Constitution is the Christian fascism of the religious right, and the 2nd greatest danger to that tradition is the unintentional, in fact, almost knee-jerk, nurturing of Christian fascism on the part of progressives in the name of “tolerance” (see Sam Harris’s remarks on same early in “The End of Faith”). The latter group, especially, would do well to read John Milton’s great defense of freedom of speech and press, “Areopagitica”, with careful attention to what Milton says about the moral limits of tolerance.


  • Hi Jim! I am left pondering this as I feel particularly “called” to working with youth in detention (at this time – I always say that I am open to “re-call.”) What would you think are the right words around being attracted towards a particular vocation? The challenge I have is that I would never have entered a prison without some sort of call. I didn’t know anybody in prison; I have never been to prison; I had never considered this as a life path. And yet, here I am, rocking the prison ministry.

    I take full responsibility for my understanding and for what I do. In some ways, though, I “blame” G*d for the call (in a facetious manner). But it is certainly something I love to do. Something I’m good at. And something that needs doing. (Who knew?!) But it really never seemed like my idea, even now, a decade later, the initial idea came out of the blue–and I was shocked! I use the language of G*d being in that initial idea. How would you frame it?

  • James R. Cowles

    I would just say you serendipitously discovered an activity you (a) loved to do and (b) were good at, something you never would have suspected. It was the same with me in discovering, as I did shortly before I retired 4 years ago, constitutional history & constitutional law. I’m glad Diane’s & my heads were at an altogether different place when that happened! Otherwise, we’d have quit our jobs so I could take the LSAT & go to law school, repeating the Boston / Harvard / Seattle Univ debacles yet again. JRC

  • I also think there is often a kind of false humility implicated in the belief that I am being “led” to some “vocation” by God. We discover some hitherto unsuspected interest or aptitude or talent in ourselves, and we are so surprised & gratified that we think “This has to be God’s ‘call’!” We are reluctant to consider that there might actually be depths & potentialities lurking beneath the surface, that we have a “hidden life” in Matthew Arnold’s poignant sense.

    “But often, in the world’s most crowded streets,
    But often, in the din of strife,
    There rises an unspeakable desire
    After the knowledge of our buried life;
    A thirst to spend our fire and restless force
    In tracking out our true, original course; A longing to inquire
    Into the mystery of this heart which beats
    So wild, so deep in us–to know
    Whence our lives come and where they go.”

    But acknowledging these hidden depths would seem contrary to our usual conception of “Godly humility”. So the only way we dare grasp these new possibilities is by presumptively giving God the credit … and thereby inviting all the fatal Tar-Baby conundra I described in my post.

  • I totally think I have skills above and beyond in the area of sitting with vulnerable youth and hearing their stories. And as I grow, I totally am filled with satisfaction with my work even when it is very hard. My conundrum is in the first inkling or idea of, “Of course! You should go to prison!” Then I said to myself, “You have got to be kidding.”

    But I am also a Process Theologian so it is never about external action put upon a person but about the process or loving, creative give and take.

    • James R. Cowles

      I wholeheartedly agree … It’s just that, for Occam’s Razor-type reasons — hmmm … about which I should do a “Skeptic” post sometime, come to think of it — I see no reason to posit a “call” from outside / within / behind (choose your metaphor) ourselves. We all have hidden depths yet to be discovered. And celebrated.

  • I agree with that understanding. There is a nice a analogy here, I think, with Albert Einstein’s concept of God. By the “G-word”, Einstein meant the totality, the “gestalt” of an elegantly ordered universe of interlocking & interdependent natural law, not Something or Someone Who stands outside that totality as Creator to Creation. One can analogously mean God as the totality of those hidden depths of which Matthew Arnold wrote & from which can emerge the most astonishing & unexpected things, like previously unknown & unsuspected sea creatures swimming up from the bottom of the Marianas Trench. Granted, the change in pressure would kill such creatures, but please work with me here & don’t over-interpret the metaphor … 😎 …

  • Melinda Giese

    Interesting! I am somewhat like Terri, in that I seemed to have blocked or covered up my own deepest desires in terms of vocation and somehow the psychological process of prayer was key to unlocking them for me, in a way that is connected to my understanding of God. But your post reminds me of how some traditions insist on the necessity of a conversion moment, which results in people of faith feeling like their faith isn’t legitimate if they can’t manage to have a true blue conversion moment or God doesn’t care about them enough to give them one. I see how churches could use calling like that. Thank you for sharing; I think all discussions are richer when people tell their own truth!!

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