The Idea of Vocation as a Bridge Between Two Extremes

Yesterday was the second keynote address at the National Convention of the Catholic Ministry Association. The speaker was Ed Hahnenberg from John Carroll University (and author of several books, including Awakening Vocation: A Theology of Christian Call). The theme of his truly wonderful talk was Receiving and Responding to the Light of Christ.

Hahnenberg began his talk by talking about the cultural context, a context that makes the language of vocation especially helpful right now.

We live in a culture of choice, a culture of hyper-individualism and consumerism. That is, we have been trained to be consumers, with choice as one of the most important ways of framing reality.

This has a profound effect on our experience of Christian discipleship, in that faith – like the rest of what occupies our lives – becomes a matter of choice, something we get to pick (rather than being something we are born into). That has been reflected in a shift from “religious dwelling” to “spiritual seeking,” with the dominant metaphor being one of quest.

For some, the horrified reaction to this is to seek a return to command, to rigid conformity to orthodoxy. (As Hahnenberg said this, I recall a conversation I had with a young man once, in which he said, “I don’t see why people feel they have to understand x; why isn’t it enough that the Holy Father said it.”)

Hahnenberg acknowledged that there are some very positive things about this shift – the presence of real agency, a personal relationship with God and the fact that quest is often motivated by a sincere desire to deepen one’s relationship with God and opens one to a more compassionate way or living. As he said, the problem is not choice, but the possibility that choice short-circuits transformation by allowing a pick-and-choose mentality that means nothing challenges us. (This part of his talk resonated deeply with me as it has common chords with my nervousness with hyphenated labels to describe one’s faith – but that is the subject of a different post.)

And that is where, he suggested, the idea of vocation helps. Vocation taps into the deep part of quest, but recognizes that my decisions are not individually made by me but are a response to something beyond – a response to God’s call. In his words, “My freedom does not hover supreme over all possibilities, but stands under the transcendent. Vocation is the way I will rise into transcendent reality.”

Vocation helps steer a course between hyper-individualism and a command-and-control model of faith. And that makes it important that we have and convey a broad understanding of vocation as a universal call to faith and holiness.