Recently I read a book arguing that higher education can be renewed through campus discussions of vocation. Programs designed to encourage such discussion yielded positive results, which bodes well for the effectiveness of similar initiatives in the future.
Still, something was bothering me. Many of the campus programs described in the book avoided overtly theological language such as “vocation” in favor of talking about “purpose,” so as not to scare off people with no religious beliefs.
In light of this, I had a question I could not get out of my mind: how do people make sense of vocation (whether that word is used or not) if they don’t believe in God?
The author of the book was not concerned with explaining how nonreligious people understand vocation, remaining satisfied with the fact that vocational exploration programs had positive effects on both religious and nonreligious students.
Fortunately, a recent collection of essays on the same topic of vocation and higher education, At This Time and In This Place, takes up this question at length.
What We Mean When We Talk about Vocation
To begin, it will help to distinguish the theological understanding of vocation from the way it is typically used in everyday conversation.
When people use the word vocation—these days usually in the form of “vocational training”—they are almost always referring to a job, or a career path more broadly.
However, the theological (Christian) understanding of vocation goes beyond a particular job or career path. As Hugh Whelchel puts it,
Vocational calling is the call to God and to his service in the vocational sphere of life based on giftedness, desires, affirmations, and human need.
Vocation, rightly understood, transcends any given job, and our vocational calling—what God calls us to do based on our gifts, desires, and the needs around us—can manifest in several different, discrete jobs.
So when we discuss the question of whether people who don’t believe in God can make sense of vocation, “vocation” here is the calling to a certain kind of work by a divine agent.
When There Is No God to Do the Calling
Now it goes without saying that this call would not exist if there were no God to do the calling. As Charles Pinches, professor of theological ethics at Scranton University, points out,
It is difficult to make sense of the notion of calling if one supposes there is no [sacred] realm from which a call might come. Or, put more precisely: If someone is called, it seems that there must be a caller who solicits his or her attention [emphasis in original].
It is easier to recognize a call when you believe someone is calling you in the first place. But what happens to those who do not believe in God?
Kathryn A. Kleinhans, professor of religion at Wartburg College, suggests that based on Lutheran theology, God’s call still draws those who do not recognize it as such:
[Luther] grounds vocation in created life rather than the life of faith. God, as creator, calls all people to live responsibly in the world God has made. Because God works in the created world indirectly, through natural and human agency, this is true regardless of whether or not the people themselves “hear” or acknowledge this call as coming from God.
Thus, God’s vocational calling to us comes through natural and human agents, even as God is the ultimate source of the call. The people and circumstances in our lives “call” to us in ways that are tangible to all, including non-believers, and all are able to respond. This is an element of what is known in Christian theology as common grace, defined by theologian John Murray as,
Every favour of whatever kind or degree, falling short of salvation, which this undeserving and sin-cursed world enjoys at the hand of God.
Common grace, in short, refers to the blessings God bestows on all people, regardless of the state of their souls. Examples include God’s sustenance of creation, the existence of civil authorities to restrain sin, and various medical and technological advancements that save lives.
In the context of calling, it is because of common grace that even non-believers are able to discern a vocation that is mediated through natural agents but ultimately comes from God. So while God is indeed necessary for vocation, people can respond to that vocation without recognizing God as the source of it.
Can Calling Come from inside Ourselves?
Even if we can explain how non-believers might make sense of vocation, though, couldn’t they simply claim their vocation comes from within, that somewhere inside themselves they just knew what they ought to do?
According to David S. Cunningham, professor of religion at Hope College, one important point for a right understanding of vocation—religious or not—is that, by definition, a call cannot come from inside ourselves. No one can call to him or herself in any meaningful sense:
If…calling is always understood in its verbal sense, as an activity with an agent who is other than the self…[then] I cannot be the sole arbiter of my vocation…It is no longer merely an act of the will—a decision on my part to point my life in a particular direction—but rather a disposition to set out in the direction that has been suggested by someone or something exterior to me.
Some could deny this and reject the idea of vocation altogether. But such a denial, says Cunningham, does not change reality:
Those individuals will still have experiences, will still be confronted with new information, and will still be pressed to choose among competing alternatives. They will be urged to read one book instead of another, declare this major instead of that one, plan for a career in one field instead of the one they had anticipated…We can believe whatever we like about calling and vocation; still, unless we seal ourselves off from the world completely, we will all regularly be confronted by new experiences to which we will need to respond.
By this account vocation is inescapable and, in a sense, is much like morality. Some non-believers deny objective right and wrong even though the evidence for it is prevalent, but many acknowledge it, although they do not recognize God as its source.
So too can they discern a vocation and heed it, even if it is not in God’s name.