The Meaning of Calling in a Culture of Choice

Edward P. Hahnenberg

(Adapted from Awakening Vocation: A Theology of Christian Call by Edward P.Hahnenberg, published by Liturgical Press, 2010, by publisher’s permission; see

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do 
with your one wild and precious life?”

Mary Oliver’s well-worn line continues to resonate. After all, is there a more pressing question? Is there one that cuts more quickly to the heart? One that so powerfully gathers up our hopes and dreams and directs them into the future?

For centuries, churches have used the language of vocation to capture this question. But today, the notion of vocation or calling is complicated in myriad ways. What does it mean “to feel called” or “to have a vocation” in a world where our churches seem disconnected from our everyday experiences, where work can be banal or impersonal or even complicit in injustice, where our careers change so many times, where so many marriages start so late and end too soon? Always the ideal remains – a life of loving, permanent commitment that sustains a life’s work in ways both fulfilling and of genuine service to others. But for many, this ideal exists more as a hope than a reality.

The Christian conception of vocation is further complicated by the way it is so often seen through the lens of our contemporary cultural default: choice.

A World of Seekers

Choice has become one of our most important ways of framing reality, shaping our approach to all aspects of our lives, including the spiritual dimension. Robert Wuthnow described this dynamic as a fundamental shift in American sensibility from religious “dwelling” to spiritual “seeking.”2 If an earlier era located religion within stable institutions, inherited traditions, and clear group identities, then today spirituality has become a project for the individual, a search for bits of wisdom and insight that might be used to craft a coherent framework for life. Rather than rest secure in the womb of organized religion, today we launch out on our own. We are seekers, on a quest, creating our own faith story.

The power of choice as a frame for the spiritual life challenges older assumptions about religious membership and participation. Indeed, the individualism inherent in this paradigm and the superficiality of so much of what claims our attention in today’s spiritual marketplace have made the culture of religious choice an easy target. Critics accuse it of promoting a trivial, privatized, and self-absorbed spirituality – one that simply mimics our larger consumer culture.

It would be a mistake, however, to judge the paradigm of choice by its most shallow forms. It needs critique. But it cannot be written off. To do so would unfairly underestimate the motivations of the many spiritual seekers who are looking for purpose, orientation, and meaning in life. Their search – our search – cannot be dismissed as selfish. For many, the quest ends not in self-improvement, but extends outward in altruistic behavior, communal participation, and diverse forms of religious practice. Choice can move religion beyond blind acceptance or passive membership. It can stress the personal nature of our relationship with God.

And yet, the weakness in all of this is the way in which the paradigm of choice can so easily short- circuit personal transformation. If religious traditions no longer provide the context for the spiritual life, instead serving only as resources for our own spiritual constructions, can they ever really challenge us? Can our faith ever call us beyond what we want or feel we need? In other words, the real issue is not choice, but conversion. It is precisely here that the ancient language of vocation can help.

Resisting Self-Absorption

Vocation taps into the deep-seated sensibilities of the quest – integrity, identity, itinerary – but in a way that resists self-absorption. It acknowledges the importance of discernment and decision – the virtues of choice – but recognizes that our decisions come as a response to something or someone beyond. To speak of call is to acknowledge a caller, to see that God’s gracious initiative precedes all of our projects and our plans, that our individual journeys have a goal.

By and large, Protestants and Catholics have followed two different trajectories in talking about vocation. I met one of these trajectories at a young age, growing up as I did in a small Catholic town in Northern Michigan. For all of us students at St. Mary’s School, it was clear: to “have a vocation” meant to be called to be a priest or a nun. Either you had a vocation, or you did not.

Alongside these religious vocations, there was a kind of secondary use of the word, one that I still associate with the guys who left our high school every afternoon and headed to the local community college. There they took classes in auto mechanics, electronics repair, and computer-aided drafting. They were in the “vocational program.” But as a Catholic, that seemed strange to me. “Vocations” were found in seminaries and convents, not community colleges.

If Catholics confined the category of vocation to a narrow set of religious roles, I later learned that Protestants have for centuries embraced a much broader notion. Martin Luther famously expanded the language of priesthood beyond the clerical caste, reclaiming the Biblical notion of the “priesthood of all believers.” He made a similar move with vocation, arguing that it is not just the monk or the minister who is called. Every state of life and any type of work can be considered a calling, a true vocation. Why? Because every state of life and any type of work offers the opportunity to serve others. Monks claim to be following God. But, according to Luther’s polemic, what monks really do is flee from their neighbor. They abandon the particular place of responsibility in which and to which God has called them. For Luther, we meet our neighbor – and love our neighbor – precisely in and through our callings, whether we be a mother, a magistrate, or a milkmaid. By faithfully fulfilling the mundane tasks of family and work, we live a life of love and service to others, and thus respond to God’s call.

Birth of a Work Ethic

Given the richness of Luther’s vision, there is a sad irony that marks much of subsequent Protestant reflection on vocation. As the concept of calling passes from Luther, through John Calvin, to the English Puritans, the concept itself is transformed. Luther talked about vocation in terms of one’s state of life. Calvin emphasized more the idea of productive labor. The Puritans took this notion of work and ran with it. In the process, there is a subtle shift in thinking: from vocation as faithfulness within one’s work, to vocation as faithfulness through one’s work, to vocation as faithfulness to one’s work. Thus the Protestant work ethic was born.

In an unfortunate reversal, Luther’s attempt to highlight the sacredness of work led to a secularization of the concept of calling. We get to a point where we can talk with ease about “vocation” without ever mentioning God – as in my classmates sent off to the vocational program to learn how to repair carburetors or write computer code.

Over the centuries, Catholics may have restricted the notion of vocation to a few sacral roles, and Protestants may have reduced it to the secular realm of work; however, in more recent decades, theologians have recovered more fruitful ways to talk about God’s call. Since the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), Catholics have embraced “the universal call to holiness” as the starting point for any treatment of vocation. Protestants have, in turn, offered rich theologies of work, sensitive to the profound ambiguities of today’s global economy. But some of the best reflection has turned away from the tendency to talk about vocation in terms of general roles and responsibilities, and focused instead on the specific human being who is called.

We see this stress on the particularity of the person, for example, in two twentieth-century giants: the Reformed theologian Karl Barth and the Catholic Karl Rahner. Barth saw in Luther’s theology of vocation a helpful stress on context. God meets us where we are, as we are. Our individual identities provide a first clue to our callings. Each of us is a unique creation placed by God in a particular time, at a particular place, and gifted with particular abilities, experiences, and associations. God calls me, and my response cannot but be a response that comes out of the way that I am made.3

In a very different vein, Karl Rahner also emphasized the uniqueness of the individual’s call. As for Barth, so for Rahner, one’s calling is wrapped up in one’s particular identity. But for Rahner, this identity flows not just from creation but also from the gift of grace, the love of God that meets each of us – constitutes each of us – as a unique child of God. It is indeed true that God has called each of us by name.4

The Self, True and False

This emphasis on the particularity of the spiritual subject is not new to Christian tradition, but it has taken on a new centrality in our own day. It pervades theological reflection and popular consciousness. It is difficult to imagine an era more preoccupied with the unique story of the individual. From postmodern theologies to Facebook and Twitter, particularity is our passion.

Following Barth and Rahner, I find this emphasis helpful for thinking about vocation. There is a concern, however, that has to do with where we began: the challenge of choice.

To begin reflection on vocation with one’s unique identity is to frame the question of vocational discernment in terms of harmony. Discerning one’s call is a process of discovering harmony between who I am as a child of God and a particular path in life. The danger is that this process becomes reduced to a search for what will meet my tastes, my needs, my wants. The danger is that we begin to imagine vocational discernment – as we imagine so much of our lives – along the model of consumer choice.

To put it bluntly, the trouble with making “me” the center of the dynamics of discernment is the fact that this “me” so often messes things up. If discernment asks that I seek harmony between who I am and a particular path forward, then it is crucially important to have an open and honest sense of myself before God. Resonance means little if the tuning fork is bent. Genuine vocational discernment demands of each of us an ever more clear recognition of our true selves, an acceptance and understanding of the unique child of God that each of us was graciously created to be.

What we are talking about is conversion – an ongoing process of transformation that frees us from attachment to a skewed sense of ourselves, our needs, and our plans. It is not just about “being me.” It is about becoming free to be me. And for that we need help. As Christians, we need immersion in a narrative and a community. We need those practices of prayer, fellowship, service, and solidarity that slowly chip away at that false sense of self that frustrates our response to God. We need others to help us know ourselves. For Christians, the quest that is so central to the spiritual life today is not a solitary search. It is a pilgrimage, a shared journey of discovery that comes as we struggle together to follow Christ. Through this discipleship we learn to discern. 

Edward P. Hahnenberg is the Breen Chair in Catholic Systematic Theology at John Carroll University in Cleveland, OH, and serves as a delegate to the U.S. Lutheran-Catholic Ecumenical Dialogue. 


1  Mary Oliver, “The Summer Day,” in New and Selected Poems (Beacon Press, 1992), p. 94.
2  Robert Wuthnow, After Heaven: Spirituality in America Since the 1950s (University of California Press, 1998), p. 2.
3  Karl Barth, “Vocation,” in Church Dogmatics, III/4, translated by A. T. Mackay, et al. (T & T Clark, 1961), pp. 599-600.
4  Karl Rahner, “The Significance in Redemptive History of the Individual Member of the Church,” in The Christian Commitment, translated by Cecily Hastings (Sheed & Ward, 1963), pp. 57-58.