Called to the Unbidden
Saving Vocation from the Market
Jason A. Mahn

In his recent What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, American political philosopher Michael Sandel points to hundreds of cases where encroachments of “the Market” on goods that used to be priceless have corroded our civic values and our sense of civic togetherness. Some of the Market’s expansions are irksome but perhaps morally inconsequential: the trend toward monetizing gifts through those once-tacky gift cards, the scalping of campsite tickets for Yosemite National Park, or the corporate renaming of professional baseball parks. Others are more ethically alarming: the sale of the right to immigrate, the offer of cash to female drug addicts if they undergo sterilization, or the rise of the viatical industry, through which a terminally ill person sells his or her life insurance to a third party who then makes money when the terminal person dies—the sooner the death, the bigger the profit (Sandel 2012, 35–37, 62–62, 136–49).

Sandel’s primary objection to the expansion of market forces into the civil realm is that putting a price on public goods or “incentivizing” consumers to choose the right thing to do (lose weight, stop smoking, care about the environment) does not simply add external motivations to internal ones but actually corrodes the latter. We no longer do what is good because it is good or right or helpful to those in need. We do it because we are paid. And when those payments cease to be worth our effort, we stop doing it altogether (84–91). While shared goods presently sell off at surprising rates, Sandel’s concerns are not new. Some twenty years ago, Larry Rasmussen foresaw how the Market beguiles us into believing that obligation to others is fulfilled through calculated self-interest (Rasmussen 1993, 61–76). Some two centuries before that, Adam Smith himself insisted that capitalism could help humans flourish only so long as nonmarket civic virtues restricted the domain and curbed the temperament of economic exchange (Smith 1976, in Rasmussen 1993, 41–45).1 If Sandel and Rasmussen are right, the time when these civil virtues could serve this role is passing or past.

I begin with Sandel and company in an essay about Christian vocation because their work helps highlight a parallel trend that is also already upon those of us in church-affiliated colleges and universities. Language of vocation seems ubiquitous in those settings—especially since 1999 when Lilly Endowment, Inc. began giving millions of dollars in grant money to schools to examine the link between faith and vocational choices. The fact that a leading pharmaceutical company financed a good deal of vocational reflection over the past decade does not in itself degrade that reflection. But the fact that, in these trying economic times, church-related colleges increasingly point to education-for-vocation as a distinctive “trademark” should raise theological scruples.


Sanctifying Work

In the Middle Ages, having a “vocation” or “calling” was reserved for those professional Christians bound to the priesthood or nunnery or monastery; they (“the religious”) alone were called. Since the Reformation, vocation more commonly has come to designate anyone and everyone’s duty to serve the neighbor and uphold the structures of God’s world, often through paid work. For Luther or Calvin, the primary function of vocation language was to show how various stations or offices that Christians found themselves assuming were not devoid of God’s presence and guidance. When the bricklayer lays brick, he (or she today) helps uphold God’s left-hand kingdom, sometime by keeping at bay the forces of evil that otherwise rule it, always by serving others through a particular trade or charge. Almost any office or station in life thereby s christened, not by contributing directly to the work of the Gospel but by restraining evil, preserving order, and serving others.

In more recent history, this sanctioning function of vocation language changes somewhat as “vocation” expands to characterize not only the tasks and offices that one has already assumed (usually by necessity), but also the process of discerning which particular jobs, commitments, and service one should assume. “Vocation” thereby moves from the indicative to the imperative. To be called ceases to be the backward justification of the work in which one is involved and s the discernment, usually by the young, of the lives and jobs to which they feel called. So, whereas Luther’s burning vocation question was, “whether soldiers, too, could be saved”—that is, whether lives and tasks that seem peripheral or antithetical to the gospel still find place in the wider purposes of God—now the questions , “What does God want of me?” “What should I do in order to best serve God and neighbor?” Or, most compactly, “Who am I going to be?” Without having to mark any watershed moment of this development, it is safe to say that it broadly parallels the process of industrialization and the diversification of labor, and then the rise of the professions, along with the creation of the modern university in which students choose courses of study that lead to chosen careers that have been selected in part—we hope—by discerning God’s “call.”

In spite of this development, it would seem that the language of vocation or calling today, when used by Christians at all, still risks becoming retrospectively justifying no less than with Luther’s soldier. Only now what gets christened are the choices and plans that we have made rather than the circumstances in which we find ourselves. If the older language of vocation enables a soldier (or mother or bricklayer) to transform her or his fate into destiny, the language today risks enabling a student to justify her preferences and personal choices as obedience to God. This is especially true to the degree that the “voice” that one hears gets wholly ­internalized—as our talk of authenticity (“just listen to your true self!”) so often suggests. Disconnected from the perceivable needs of the neighbor or the well-being of a community, the voice of God risks getting confused within our own loud longings.

The answer to this risk is to reinvigorate and reconfigure the language of vocation, as is being done at Christian colleges and universities, with and without major grants. Students are taught to identify not only their passions and talents but also the deep needs of the world, ensuring that “their” calling does not begin and end with them alone. This is important work, and we need more of it. Still, a more recent and related development makes the restoration of vocational discernment increasingly difficult.


Marketing Vocation

The difficulty rests precisely in the trend toward the privatization, incentivization, and commodification of what were once shared, public goods, as well as the risk this trend poses for the goods and aims of education, as discerned by Martha Nussbaum. Like Sandel and Rasmussen, Nussbaum traces our expanding Market’s corrosive effects. Her book, Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities (2010), documents the particular corrosion that worldwide pursuits for profitability have on humanistic education and its promise to educate for citizenship and democracy. When the goal of education s exclusively or primarily the promotion of economic growth, the skills and dispositions that are at the center of humanistic education and that are necessary for human flourishing are lost. Certainly those of us at church-related schools feel this trend with every meeting about enrollment and endowment numbers. Most of us have ceased to resist the temptation to market the liberal arts by showing prospective students and their paying parents statistics about how many of our students open their own businesses or go on to law school. One small but important instance of this trend is the place and function of “vocation” within our colleges.

Two short examples: First, I recently attended the annual “Vocation of a Lutheran College” conference at Augsburg College in Minneapolis. One of the breakout sessions, led by a staff person of the Lutheran Educational Conference of North America (LECNA), was entitled, “Marketing the Concept of Individual and Institutional Vocation.” After chatting with the leader, I have reason to believe that she shares healthy reservations about how or whether the idea of vocation can be marketed without commodifying and corrupting it. But the fact that tough economic times in Lutheran higher education seemingly necessitate that we pitch vocation as part of the Lutheran education brand remains disconcerting.

Second and closer to home, my own Lutheran institution has incorporated the Center for Vocational Reflection within an overarching Community Engagement Center so that it can communicate more efficiently with the study-abroad office, internship coordinators, and the career center. This—like marketing vocation to prospective students—makes all kinds of institutional sense, but the danger is that aims to discern God’s call or to find meaning in the whole arc of one’s life now principally buttress the institution’s retention rates or the student’s career exploration. I am not claiming that anyone intends to relegate “vocation” to sound career panning in the face of economic necessities—quite the opposite; we intend to promote vocational discernment. But if Sandel is right in noting how incentives often dis-incentivize us toward nobler ends, we should be wary of the ways we promote vocation.

How might emphases on the liberal arts and on the goal of discerning one’s calling survive and perhaps even thrive in an economic culture where fears of unemployment and of not paying back student loans increasingly drive student expectation and exploration? Can vocational discernment—a practice which is, at bottom, theological and even prayerful and pastoral in concern—resist getting absorbed or eclipsed by careerism, the pursuit of professional advancement, as one’s chief or only aim? Does language of vocation finally amount to a marketing strategy among liberal arts institutions to distinguish holistic education from the more outcome-driven and often more affordable education of secular universities? Can it be more? If so—and here I turn from worried employee at a church-related institution to a Christian theologian—if so, how might we characterize human callings and the Caller behind them in ways that do not wholly separate vocational discernment from the investment in a career, on the one hand, but do not eclipse the first by way of the second, on the other? And finally, how might we appreciate and advance the post-Reformation trend toward the imperative to discern one’s own future vocation without thereby “privatizing” it, without foregoing our call to unbidden, unchosen neighbors in their need? While all of these concerns cannot be addressed here, an earlier text by Sandel helps us see our lives as good gifts and what that might mean for talk of a Giver.


Unbidden Gift

Sandel’s 2004 essay, “The Case Against Perfection,” begins by presupposing a shared ill-ease with breakthroughs in genetic engineering and performance-enhancing drugs. His article searches for an adequate understanding for why this unease exists. The two most common explanations for our dis-ease, both of which Sandel rejects as inadequate, revolve around issues of autonomy and fairness. The autonomy argument insists that by picking the genetic traits of our children—say, by making them predisposed to excel at basketball by making them tall, or at school, by making them smart—we essentially rob otherwise autonomous individuals of their right to choose their own interests and cultivate their own capabilities. Concerns about fairness revolve around issues of access and use; the end of genetic manipulation may in fact be a master race whose predecessors had access to genetic enhancements, and a mastered race whose ancestors did not. As alarming as that scenario is, Sandel rejects the adequacy of these explanations for our worry. Fairness issues are real but, for Sandel, even when we imagine measures for maintaining equal access, our moral scruples do not abate.

In fact, the case for autonomy, although remaining our culture’s dominant explanation for our ethical reservations, turns out for Sandel to be almost the exact opposite of why he thinks we are—or should be—concerned with performance-enhancing interventions. The problem with doping and biotechnology and even helicopter parenting is not the loss of agency but the drive toward hyperagency; we are becoming too autonomous, too responsible for our own fates and so are losing our “openness to the unbidden” (Sandel 2004, quoting William May). We are losing our ability to mourn tragedy and honor good luck, in short, our appreciation for life’s giftedness. It is at this point that Sandel almost gets theological, as his allusion to “gift” suggests. Asking, “What would be lost if biotechnology dissolved our sense of giftedness?” Sandel responds:

From a religious standpoint the answer is clear: To believe that our talents and powers are wholly our own doing is to misunderstand our place in creation, to confuse our role with God’s. Religion is not the only source of reasons to care about giftedness, however. The moral stakes can also be described in secular terms. If bioengineering made the myth of the “self-made man” come true, it would be difficult to view our talents as gifts for which we are indebted, rather than as achievements for which we are responsible. (Sandel 2004)

Sandel the political philosopher is not willing to play the “Don’t Play God” card—or at least he doesn’t want that card to leave the nonreligious without moral scruples or the ability to explain them. But notice, too, how odd the secular translation of this religious appreciation for our place in creation gets. The nonreligious should view their talents as gifts for which they are indebted, even if they remain agnostic about any giver of those gifts and the recipient of their thanksgiving. In many ways, Sandel simply suggests that dispositions of deep gratitude for life’s fortunes, as well as lament for life’s tragedies, are available to all—these are human virtues and not religious or theological ones.

But perhaps Sandel’s mention of God the Giver of every good gift and then his immediate erasure of that remark could suggest something more. Could it be that a more thorough tracing of giftedness back to Giver might undercut the very openness to the unbidden that Sandel wants us to cultivate? One notes that when Christians and other people of faith cite not wanting to “play God” as a reason for resisting genetic engineering, that very turn of phrase does not in itself suggest appreciation for all that is un-designed, uncontrolled, and uninvited. Often, it rather connotes the re-designation of authorship and control (Ludwig Feuerbach would say their projection) onto God alone. God is designer and supreme engineer, so we should not be. Of course, we need not swallow Feuerbach entirely to predict that redirecting autonomy and self-subsistence away from life’s vicissitudes to God “alone” can function to legitimate that same quest for mastery. As Michael Buckley, Charles Taylor, and others have suggested, while modern characterizations of God as a deistic designer allegedly provide a stopgap against modernity’s ambitions toward technological control and mastery over nature, in reality they sanction those goals, securing and sacralizing the quest for human invulnerability.

In more economic terms, we might say that Christian cautions about not playing God, about not being one’s own boss, quite handily function to reserve at least a managerial role for humanity. While we shouldn’t choose final ends for ourselves, the very fact that they are determined by God means that we can focus on suitable and efficient means, on becoming God’s bureaucrats in any innocuous line of work.  To preview here where we will end up, that ideological function of religion is largely what Bonhoeffer rejects when he mused late in his short life about a “religionless Christianity” and prodded us to live “as if there were no God.” Perhaps then Sandel’s unwillingness to preserve human giftedness by trading it off on divine design reveals an implicit awareness that leaving the Giver of our giftedness undefined may be the only sure way to cultivate an appreciation for human life as uncontrollable and uncontrolled.


Unneeded Work

What do these theological musings on Sandel’s agnostic reflections about human life as gifted have to do with the language of vocation among expanding market forces? The political theology of Kathryn Tanner, and especially her many deliberations on the noncompetitive relationship between Creator and creation, can connect these conversations. Tanner has long been concerned with theological economics, broadly construed as the circulation of goods among people and with God. In Economy of Grace (2005), she compares the structural, elective affinities between economics and theology and does so without yielding up Christianity’s distinctiveness and thus excluding the possibility of noncompetitive forms of circulation. In other words, the possibility of “gift” is as important to Tanner as it is to Sandel, and yet Tanner insists that explicitly Christian accounts of the relation between Creator and creation are essential to discerning the nature of being gifted and of being called by God to work from those gifts.

In her short essay, “Why are We Here?,” Tanner explicitly connects the vocational and existential question in her title to matters of work and economy. She suggest that Christians join Jews and Muslims in affirming the meaning of existence in terms of its relation to the Creator—a relation that is present prior to any affirmation or commitment on our part. Everything that exists gets its existence from God—humans, too, “are not simply in a relationship with God; they are that relationship in the sense that such a relationship constitutes their very being” (Tanner 1998, 9). Humans, though, also are called to “choose, with full consciousness… to align themselves with this fact [of relationship]” (10). Exploring here what Puritans called one’s general calling and what Luther called a person’s spiritual calling, Tanner insists that this primary, shared vocation to live into and bear witness to one’s God-relation entails the whole arc of a person’s life:

In every affair in life—in public or private, in word or deed, when active or in retirement, in matters of state or worries about economic justice, when contemplating the course of either the natural world or human history, when assessing the character of one’s desire or deciding one’s responsibility to one’s neighbors, when helping others or caring for oneself—one can try to witness self-consciously, in one’s feelings, thoughts, and deeds, to the relationship that creatures enjoy with God. (Tanner 1998, 11)

This can sound like quite a bit of work—that we are called to a monumental task, and that we had better get going. Interestingly, it is at this point that Tanner goes beyond emphasizing that the relationship to God is primary to our efforts to live into it, or beyond her claim that this general or spiritual calling takes priority over any “external” (Luther) or “particular” (Puritan) ones. She suggests that finding the meaning of human life in the purposes and intentions of God actually undercuts what some take to be the standard conception of “working for God,” namely, that “human life has meaning to the extent human beings carry out those divine purposes or intentions” (13). Our primary vocation, for Tanner, simply transcends our notions of human work, paid or unpaid. In fact, if work is understood as a form of productivity and utility, if it is based on the “instrumental calculus of means and ends” (Rasmussen 1993, 38), then vocation isn’t “work” at all. And this is so, in my earlier words, because God is not like a boss who employs us. In Tanner’s striking terms:

God’s purposes and intentions with respect to the world are not based on need. Human beings are not useful to God. God does not need [us] to perform any sort of task… God does not need human beings at all… human beings are here, they enjoy a relationship with God, because of a purely gratuitous act of beneficence on God’s part. (Tanner 1998, 13–14)

This classical Thomistic understanding of the creature-Creator relationship can sound as though it is underscoring God’s invulnerability by emphasizing “His” lack of need. What is so compelling in Tanner’s account is that she finds in God’s “aseity” or otherness not a model of mastery and control—in Sandel’s terms, not the expansion of our will to perfect ourselves—but rather the very condition that makes possible a circulation of gifts independent of the kinds of means-to-ends calculations familiar to any efficient bureaucracy or profitable business venture. In other words, Tanner has retrieved God’s utter transcendence in terms that underscore God’s gratuitous gift-giving and so occasion our awe over giftedness, including the gift of vulnerability and, with it, openness to the unbidden.

Tanner senses that the tendency to understand work as duty to God easily obscures our ­appreciation for the giftedness of creation. Dispositions required for and cultivated by working from a sense of unmerited giftedness differ in kind from those employed in questing-to-fulfill-God’s-will or working-to-accomplish-God’s-task. To notice the difference and preserve it depends on recognizing the subtle slide from vocation as service to neighbor to vocation as chosen career, and then again to the kind of careerism whereby people pursue professional advancement as an end in itself. The question at this point is whether, in the effort to resist the collapse of God’s calling into one’s chosen career, “vocational discernment” should be kept entirely distinct from the workday world and, by extension, from the career and community-engagement centers of our colleges. Alternatively, are there resources in mainline Reformation thought and practice to resist this slide toward careerism, productivity, and endless economic growth, if only we would recover them? I hope to point toward the second possibility, but only after coming to terms with the real risk that vocational language only legitimates the expansion of markets and justifies our upward ambitions.  


Whether CEOs, Too, Can Be Saved

Martin Luther was a master of distinctions. In his ongoing effort not to confuse the regard of God with the strivings of the religious, he drew lines between the inner and outer human, between humanity before God (coram Deo) and before humanity (coram hominibus), between Law and Gospel, and between the kingdom of God and of the world. By distinguishing matters of salvation (the “alien” work of justification by God’s right hand) from all other matters of worldly, although still Christian, concern (the preserving work of God’s left hand, along with human judgment and effort), Luther not only expanded the language of vocation to include the 90 percent of the population who didn’t have callings into the priesthood or monastery; he also made virtually any worldly duty or office (Stand), paid or unpaid, compatible with the Christian faith—and so deserving of the name “Christian calling.” The irony should not go unnoticed: By clearly dividing matters of salvation from any and every pursuit and ambition, “religious” or otherwise, Luther ends up with an expansive understanding of vocation that Christianizes (but does not “gospelize”) almost every job, task, position, and duty.

It is ironic too that this hard distinction between matters of salvation and worldly-work is shared by those who vehemently critique this Lutheran association of Christian vocation with work in civil, governmental, and private spheres, especially in a technocratic society. The social theorist Jacques Ellul, for example, insists that work is not vocation—once we see it as such we risk validating all the sinful alienation brought about by extracted labor, by refined techniques over craftsmanship, and by increased efficiency and control (Placher 2005, 328). Stanley Hauerwas even insists that to understand work as vocation forces us to idolatry (328–29). Such critiques historically spring not from Catholics wanting to reserve “vocation” for the professionally religious, but from the radical Reformation or Anabaptist tradition, which maintains its own clear-cut distinction between the church’s way of life, centered in peacemaking and allegiance to Jesus alone, and the predominant social structures and powers that we are tempted to obey, including capitalist economics. A good deal of the Anabaptist Schleitheim Confession, for example, deliberates about whether Christians can legitimately participate in civil and military spheres. For Mennonite ethicist John Howard Yoder, Christians ought to restore the New Testament’s usage of “vocation,” which meant to be called into a radically new and spirit-driven Christian community apart from the dominant order. For him, the mainline (“magisterial”) Reformation’s use of vocation functions only to “divine rubber stamp” the ways of the world (Yoder 1984, 210 n. 9).

The Anabaptist critique of mainline accounts of vocation is exceedingly important, especially as we find it increasingly difficult to articulate the distinction between divine calling and personal fulfillment or economic expedience. And yet we can still appreciate Luther’s offer of pastoral care to those caught in otherwise meaningless—not to mention seemingly ungodly—work: The father changing stinky diapers is following his calling by God just as much as the priest presiding over Mass. If I have diaper-changing abilities and “my neighbor” (in this case, my son) has needs that need attending, then I am called by God to uphold the “office” of a parent. Luther offered other examples that he meant to be no less shocking but which have more contestable, especially among pacifist churches: If society needs a hangman and you are qualified to pull the lever, then this, indeed, is your calling. Contestable too was Luther’s insistence that “Soldiers, too, can be saved”—that is, that some Christians may be called to kill and die for country, and that Christian princes are right to fight against peasant rebels (“Whether Soldiers” 118–27)—despite Jesus’ disarming of Peter and the radical sayings of the Sermon on the Mount. Why?

Again, by clearly distinguishing the shared, internal, spiritual calling of Christians from the external, particular calling of each to a particular office or set of duties, Luther insists that most worldly offices could be compatible with Christian salvation. They are compatible not because the external duties lead to or manifest Christian salvation (Weber’s lineage from Protestantism to the spirit of capitalism notwithstanding), but because the two are utterly incommensurable. Any job can be Christian because none is related to salvation. God’s left-handed work in the working world remains utterly unrelated—at least by our sight—to God’s right-handed work in the spiritual kingdom. Where for Ellul or Yoder that distinction makes no career worthy of divine underwriting, for Luther it makes almost every job worthy of God’s calling; exceptions arise only when one’s conscience is certain (“Whether Soldiers” 130). In all other cases, when the hangman pulls the switch, it is not the spiritual or inner man doing it; it is in fact only God and the office of hangman itself (96).

While it might be for very different reasons—reasons shared by Ellul, I think—Tanner’s distinction of Christian vocation from the means-ends calculations and quests for efficiency in bureaucratic workplaces shares with Luther a pastoral concern that the worth of a Christian’s life not be made dependent on her or his “productivity.” In fact, Luther anticipates Tanner’s surprising claim that God “does not desire works, nor has [God] need of them” (“Babylonian Captivity,” 42). The point here is not that Christians do not join Jewish people (and secular humanists, engaged Buddhists, or undergrad idealists) in healing the world (tikkun olam). It is only that that “work” should be done from a sense of God’s blessing rather than toward it.

And yet, this expansive understanding of vocation seems related to the slippage from “being called by God to serve the neighbor” to “work for the sake of having work.” Many of us now experience that shift and—given the state of the present economy—few of us want to critique it. But if we can’t resist it, then it would seem we are left without the sense of giftedness that Sandel so prizes or the noncompetitive circulation of goods that Tanner’s theology warrants. We would have work without vocation, inhuman and unredeemable, thereby corroborating Weber’s hunch that “the pursuit of wealth, stripped of its religious and ethical meaning, tends to associated with purely mundane passions, which actually give it the character of sport” (Weber 1992, 182).


Vocation as Second Use of The Gospel

One way forward is to note that we owe the conservative notion of vocation, where one occupies predetermined and static positions in society, not primarily to Luther himself but to late sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Lutheran orthodoxy, which exaggerated and reified Luther’s “orders of creation.” Luther himself was relatively innovative in rethinking social structures; he questioned whether beggars were needed, whether priests might not marry, whether usury was justifiable, and much more. (The fact that “whether war can be just” is not on this list tells us much about the disagreement between Luther and the Anabaptists on vocation.) Given the number of social structures that Luther did rethink, even if he associates vocation with a first use of the law (that is, law as preserving social stability), we need not assume that law or the structures it preserves are static and self-justifying.2 Such reconsiderations keep with typical understandings of vocation as rooted in law and the (dynamic) orders of creation rather than the gospel. They have the value of preserving Luther’s steadfast distinction between the redeeming work that God does through Jesus, apart from any human work, and the ongoing creation and preservation of the earth and its people, in which all are called to participate.

And yet one should also note that Luther’s various divisions are multiple, overlapping, and shifting enough to make other reconsiderations possible. For example, Luther also writes of being called in vivid ways when he describes how Christ empties himself to serve and save individuals, and then how this kenotic pattern is repeated when others do not count justification as something to be grasped, but empty themselves again in service to the neighbor. Luther famously writes of “two kinds of righteousness” or two uses of the gospel—one that saves individuals apart from human work and a second that completes and complements this salvific work as the Christian empties herself in service to others (“Two Kinds of Righteousness”)—or again, how a Christian is entirely freed by grace, subject to no one, and also how that freedom necessarily redoubles as the steadfast commitment to serve all (“Freedom of a Christian”). Christ is everywhere in this double-kenosis: not only as the prototype after which Christians pattern their own servant-work in the world (as Paul originally implores them—see Philippians 2:5), but also in the form of the serving one, who for Luther s a “little Christ,” and finally in the one benefiting from the service, insofar as whatever one does for “the least of these,” one does it to Christ himself (Matt. 25:44).

Clearly, there are ways of conceiving of a person’s vocation—a person’s response to the deep needs of the world—as discipleship to Christ without confusing it with salvation or making God’s unmerited grace contingent on it. Doing so would require us to think of vocation not primarily under the first use of the law but as a second use of the gospel. The gospel saves—so that the saved might serve. Just as there are two uses of the law—one that preserves society’s orders and a second that drives a person to grace—so, too, Luther suggests two uses of the gospel (Lazareth 2001, 198–234): one that redeems Christians apart from works of the law and the other that leads them to be radically responsive to the concrete needs of the neighbor. If God works with two hands in the created world, God s no less ambidextrous when it comes to the Gospel of Jesus. Freedom from having to work for God redoubles as the freedom to work entirely for the God revealed in Christ and in the hungry poor.

Of course, the idea of vocation as radical response to need, as a form of service or even kenosis, is difficult to maintain in light of today’s nearly ubiquitous faith that our primary social duty is to keep the economy rolling through employment and the private ownership of goods. Those privileged enough to do what they love and buy what they want may risk the self-satisfied assurance that their work is noble so long as they feel (and are) rewarded by it. Those required to take the work that is available to them come to consider employment itself to be the primary necessity and need, which often (understandably) blinds them to the necessities and needs of others. Vocation thus merely validates personal preferences and the social capital to select them, in the first case, and often drops out entirely, making work distracted and meaningless, in the second. In either case, work as service, work as responsive and open to others’ interruptive call for aid and justice, progressively fades from view. Too many of us “serve” an economy that assures us that we are doing our part when we pursue our own interests. Vocation as kenotic servanthood—as becoming disciples of Christ—can only appear quaint and impractical.


To Live as if There Were No Boss

I have argued that a more dynamic understanding of law or a more Christocentric understanding of vocation could help slow the slippage from calling to careerism without thereby confusing God’s free gift with our faithful response. At this point, the staff of my college’s Center for Vocational Reflection might be protesting loudly: “Language of vocation is appropriate to our pluralistic, non-sectarian colleges and universities precisely because it is not explicitly about Jesus and discipleship. To make vocational discernment a matter of following the Nazarene would forfeit what workable theological language we’ve got—not to mention abandoning all the secular (and Muslim, Jewish, “spiritual,” and other) students that we also need to be serving!”

The objection is a good one. Certainly this stopgap against the slide from divine calling to professional advancement as inherently good is in danger of either Christianizing the workplace (where students would dentists-for-Jesus) or deciding that bureaucracies and administrations are fundamentally incompatible with discipleship and so ought to be rejected in service to the Lord. I have two responses:

First, nothing in a Christocentric understanding of vocation depends on Christ being made explicit by those discerning their vocation. When the agnostic or Jewish student comes to know the concrete needs of his neighborhood and so feels called to use his pre-medical training not for upward mobility and self-fulfillment but to a home nurse for the elderly, the Christian will recognize this as discipleship, as becoming a little Christ. (Bonhoeffer, for example, wondered whether Gandhi, a Hindu, was the form that Christ was taking in the world in his day!) The important thing is that the student responds to an immediate and tangible need—which is not the same as an opportunity. In this way, one responds to real voices, real concerns, and does not simply “serve” a corporation or the nation or other abstractions, many of which only mystify the purposefulness of our work. In fact, to the degree that many contemporary Christians confuse God’s providence and blessing with social privilege, mobility, and meritocracy, the secular student attuned to the concrete needs of the immediate neighbor, even in his agnosticism, provides the more Christ-like example.

My second response is longer and entails turning from Luther to the radical Lutheran, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In discussing Sandel’s agnostic reflections, I surmised that curbing human quests for autonomy and control by playing the God card (“God is in control, you’re not”) often entails a circuitous form of mastery. “God” here names not the recipient of our deep gratitude or the bearer of our lament but one who ensures that we will get out of life what we think we deserve. Many non-Christians and Christians alike hear in the name “Jesus” the same self-justifying function, only more pronounced: If Jesus calls me to this, who am I (or you!) to argue? Bonhoeffer’s famous musings about a “religionless Christianity” and the willingness to live “etsi deus non daretur,” as if there were no God (Bonhoeffer 2010, 476)—coupled with the fact that the whole of his theological ethic was Christocentric—provides a way of conceiving of vocation in more dynamic and Christological terms without thereby confusing it with a form of mastery or invoking “God’s will” to legitimate one’s own ambitions. In fact, for Bonhoeffer, to live as if there were no God, that is, without recourse to a deus ex machina (479), and to follow Christ’s call to discipleship, are one and the same. Both open us toward a life of radical receptivity to others in need without final justification for our ways. Let us turn, first, to Bonhoeffer’s explicit reworking of vocation.

Bonhoeffer was nervous about the divine sanction Christianity and Lutheranism in particular often gives to existing orders of government, including that of his Nazi Germany. In light of these concerns, Bonhoeffer recasts Luther’s language of Stande or “orders” in terms of God’s mandates or commands: “We speak of divine mandates rather than divine orders, because thereby their character as divinely imposed tasks [Auftrag], as opposed to determinate forms of being, s clearer” (Bonhoeffer 2005, 68–69). No longer is vocation understood as an instance of the first form of the law interpreted statically as that which bolsters stability and s self-justifying. Rather, divine calling by Bonhoeffer’s account s a second use of the Gospel whereby God’s right hand works through the vicissitudes of history and in the economic and political sphere. He thereby takes emphasis away from worldly order itself, whether it be the economy, the nation, or constructs such as “freedom” or “traditional family values,” and redirects it to the Caller behind the calling, to the one who does and might again interrupt our established ways to make us newly response-able. Bonhoeffer’s eventual responsiveness to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust—and his execution in solidarity with them—testifies also to how Christ’s voice resounds through the cries of the scapegoated and forgotten.

It is clear just how Christocentric Bonhoeffer is, even—and maybe especially—when he muses about the so-called secular world and our duties therein: “The world belongs to Christ, and only in Christ is the world what it is. It needs, therefore, nothing less than Christ himself” (Bonhoeffer 2005, 67). Echoing Tanner, but in terms of the cosmic Christ through whom all is created and called, Bonheoffer insists that “the world stands in relationship to Christ whether the world knows it or not” (68). The commissioning word of God, or Christ’s mandates—including work, marriage, government, and church—provide the ways that relationship s concrete and recognizable (68). He then writes some brief reflections on the meaning of work that conclude with this: “Through the divine mandate of work, a world should emerge that—knowingly or unknowingly—expects Christ, is directed toward Christ, is open for Christ, and serves and glorifies Christ” (71).

You can imagine the vocational reflection counselors wincing again. It is exactly on this seemingly pious and exclusivist note, however, that Bonhoeffer also insists that the incarnate Christ is so thoroughly immersed in the everyday world that expecting and being open to him entails becoming more and more worldly. Just as it is a denial of God’s revelation in Jesus to “wish to be worldly without seeing and recognizing the world in Christ,” so too is it a denial of the Incarnation to “wish to be ‘Christian’ without being ‘worldly’” (Bonhoeffer 2005, 58). Indeed, the main contention that Christians should have against “the world” is that it is not nearly worldly enough (60).  Christianity immerses us into the messiness of neighborhoods, politics, and even the exchange of material goods in ways that we may not otherwise be able to bear.

William Cavanaugh claims something similar in relation to our so called “worldly” attachment to material goods. For him, the problem of consumerism arises not primarily because we are too attached to consumer goods; we rather buy, discard, and replace them at an alarming rate and with little knowledge of where they come from and end up. Clearly, we are not nearly attached enough (Cavanaugh 2008, 33–47). Extended more broadly into the realm of the workplace, Bonhoeffer and Cavanaugh help us to see what Wendell Berry also suggests: Late capitalist economics so disconnect many of us from the arts of food production and domestic craftsmanship that we barely can be said to “work” at all. Of course, we exert ourselves frantically and exhaustively, but many of us neither care for the world nor work in sustained ways to serve and tend it (Berry 1990, 123–25).

Finally, these terms help us make sense of Bonhoeffer’s cryptic call at the end of his life for a “religionless Christianity” or a “religionless interpretation” of the biblical faith. Faith in God or God’s univocal will as cosmic guarantee is rejected here, along with the sanctioning function of one’s “vocation.” Paralleling Sandel’s idea of giftedness without a Gift-giver, Bonhoeffer explores the theo-political benefit of living etsi deus non daretur—as if there were no Grand Legitimator of our ambitions, and thus no final appeal to the Boss’s will or excuse that I was “simply doing my job” when we fail to respond Christianly and humanly to those who call (out to) us (Arendt 1977, 135–50). We must wean ourselves from the habit of invoking God’s name (or the law, or the state, or the state of the economy) to sanction our strivings. At the very least, to be called by Christ to live as though God does not exist means to adopt a faith that “does not occupy a place of privilege vis-à-vis the world” (Pugh 2008, 66).



Throughout this essay I have suggested that any circulation of God’s gifts and our giftedness, any genuine service to the neighbor that is not founded on cost-benefit analysis, and thus any true Christian vocation requires Christians to work without the assurance that their work is sanctioned by God. As irreligious as it sounds, the God who calls is not in control. God is not our boss. Hearing “my” call does not safeguard me from future interruptions. Even what seem like careers that so nicely fit our passions and gifts can never be mindlessly carried out, as if doing fulfilling work has theological value in and of itself. We are responsible for listening again and again to what God through Christ through the hungry poor requires of us—in school and our homes, in civil society, and in our jobs. In this sense, our vocations less like something we decide on and possess or even carry out. Nor are they simply from the voice of God, and so justified to the extent that we hear them clearly. Vocations, rather, are something we discern, again and again, by resisting the seduction of mobility long enough to take root in real communities and to listen closely to its most vulnerable: children, topsoil, the mentally ill, and many others. In this way, our vocations, like our very lives, something vulnerable and gifted, porous and pliant, ever-responsive to unbidden gifts and tasks.

To be called in this sense won’t market well, of course. And yet—to take back a saying from MasterCard—some things really should remain priceless.


Jason A. Mahn is Associate Professor of Religion at Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois, and editor of Intersections, a journal about the vocation of ELCA higher education.



1. I thank Jim Martin-Schramm of Luther College (Decorah, Iowa) for reminding me of Rasmussen’s work and for helping me think through the characteristics and implications of Bonhoeffer’s views of vocation at the end of this essay.

2. Darrell Jodock of Gustavus Adolphus College (St. Peter, Minnesota) graciously suggested this line of thought to me and made a number of other helpful comments on my essay.


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