Book Review: Callings: Twenty Centuries of Christian Wisdom on Vocation
William C. Placher, ed., Callings: Twenty Centuries of Christian Wisdom on Vocation (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2005).
We’ve all asked it of ourselves, others, and (often) of God: “What should I do with my life? What do I want to be when I grow up? How should I do God’s will and earn a living for myself (and, possibly, a family)?” Sometimes others ask these questions of us. Sometimes we don’t finish asking such questions in adolescence. Sometimes we ask them again at other points in our lives–or we are still asking them at mid-life or even in retirement. (In the latter two cases, the question often becomes, “What should I do with the rest of my life?”)
If we are Christians, the questions take a particular shape. We don’t just ask what we’d enjoy doing, what brings us joy, what skills do we have or can obtain that are marketable and would be useful to society–although we may ask all those things too. But as Christians, we know that we are disciples, followers of Jesus, and that “our religion” isn’t just something to fit into our spare time. So, we want to be able to line up our lives and life work with God’s will, God’s purposes of grace, with the work of the Kingdom. (This may also be true for persons of other faiths, but, if so, I shall let them speak for themselves.) So we ask about our calling or vocation from God. We seek to discern such a call and, while some find such to be blindingly obvious–a sense of purpose so overwhelming as to be like a very Voice from the Heavens or a blinding Vision to pursue–others find discernment of vocation more difficult. In either case, we may seek advice from others, including the voice(s) of our faith tradition whether through the person of a pastor or spiritual director or mentor, of by searching the written records of the thoughts of those who have gone before us.
William C. Placher has edited a collection of such written wisdom from the early church to contemporary Christian thinkers in Callings: Twenty Centuries of Christian Wisdom on Vocation. After an introduction to the theme and a prologue reviewing some of the biblical passages most consulted about vocation/calling, Placher organizes the excerpts from Christian witnesses chronologically, in four sections. The divisions correspond to major shifts in context which led to large, basic, changes in the way the Church largely understood the very concept of vocation.
Section I. Callings to a Christian Life: Vocations in the Early Church, 100-500 begins in the Second Century, when Christianity was still very much a minority religion, often illegal within the Roman Empire, and sometimes subject to persecution. In such a context, the call was to become a Christian–a break from the world and life one knew. This concept, that one’s vocation was to BE A CHRISTIAN (however one earned one’s daily bread) survived the legalization of Christianity under Constantine and continued on even to the point where Theodosius made Christianity the official religion of the empire–for a time. In this section, we hear about calling and vocation from Ignatius of Antioch, Justin Martyr, the anonymous author of The Martyrdom of Perpetua, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Athanasius, Gregory of Nyssa, Palladius, the anonymously written Sayings of the Desert Fathers, and Augustine of Hippo whose Confessions invented the autobiography and the spiritual memoir.
Monasticism in Christianity had already begun in the early centuries after Constantine, whereby one might pursue a calling to a “religious life” apart from everyday “secular” life in the world–a “religious calling” that might be pursued alone as a hermit or in a community of other “vowed religious,” i.e., of monks or nuns. In the second period/division vocation is almost entirely understood as a call to such a separate religious life. Thus, section II. is titled, Called to Religious Life: Vocations in the Middle Ages, 500-1500. Those “in the world,” whether as married laypeople or as “secular clergy” not part of a monastery or convent, were generally not thought to have any calling or vocation all. In this section, Placher lets us hear the voices of John Cassian, Sulpicius Severas, St. Benedict, Bernard of Clairveaux, John de Joinville (one of the most detailed chroniclers of the Crusades), St. Bonaventure, the great female mystical theologian Metchild of Magdeburg, St. Thomas Aquinas, Christine de Pisan, the anonymous author of The Mission of Joan of Arc, and Thomas á Kempis. I would have liked to hear more Eastern voices in this section and some selections from reformers cast out as heretics (whether or not we today would still consider them heretical), such as Peter Waldo or Jan Hus. Still, I am grateful Placher included several female witnesses in this section, often left out in our mental pictures of “Medieval Christianity.” And the selections by de Joinville (his account of St. Louis’ supposed calling to lead a military crusade) and on Joan of Arc do show exceptions to the Medieval norm that vocation was automatically a monastic vocation.
The third section takes us from the Reformation to the edge of the 19th C. The Reformation introduced or reintroduced (or, at the least, gave new emphasis to) the concept of all honest work as a calling from God. Thus, section III. Every Work a Calling: Vocations After the Reformation: 1500–1800. As expected, we hear from Luther (5 selections!), Stadler, Calvin, St. Ignatius of Loyala, St. Teresa of Avila, Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, William Perkins, George Herbert (2 selections), Richard Baxter, John Bunyan, George Fox, Gerrard Winstanley (a welcome surprise!), William Law, Jonathan Edwards, and John Wesley (3 selections). The Luther’s outsized representation is easily explained: No other representative of classic Christianity wrote as much about the nature of vocation as Martin Luther.
The final section, IV. Christian Callings in a Post-Christian World, 1800-Present has no uniting concept, and the writings are the most varied yet. We hear from Søren Kierkegaard, John Cardinal Henry Newman, Feodor Dostoyevsky, Horace Bushnell, Pope Leo XIII, Max Weber, Walter Rauschenbusch, Howard Thurman, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Simone Weil, Dorothy L. Sayers, Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, and Karl Barth. At least since 1800 (if not before) Christianity has become a truly global religion. Therefore, despite Placher’s undeniable achievement in this volume, it was genuinely disappointing to see no selections at all from Asia, Africa, or Latin America. Are we to gather that there is no Christian wisdom on vocation and calling from these quarters? This is quite the oversight–the more glaring because Placher has gone beyond the “usual suspects” in much of the book.
Nevertheless, this book is a treasure, both because of the witnesses contained and because of Placher’s own introductory comments. This is theological reflection rooted in and connected to the practices of the church, in this case the practice of discerning one’s calling or vocation. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that any suggestions for revision will be undertaken in a second edition since the editor, who taught at Wabash College in Indiana, unexpectedly passed away in late 2008. That, in itself, is a tragic loss for the contemporary life of the church and we are blessed that this project was finished and published as a final gift of Placher’s own vocation as a theological educator.