15 February, 2010

Vocation, Vocationalism, and Liberal Education Lutheranly Conceived

One facet of American modernity that stands in sharp contrast to Lutheran theology is the reduction of vocation (vocatio, Beruf) to vocationalism. While it is not clear that all use of modern terminology built on the "vocat-" stem bears intentional animus toward the more fulsome, Lutheran theological sense of the term, it is the case that what moderns mean by one's "vocation" differs dramatically from what Lutherans mean by one's vocation. Untangling the mess, that is, extricating vocation from vocationalism, is thus a key element in building the theological and intellectual substructure of confessional Lutheran liberal education.
Again, the confessional documents come quickly to our aid in this endeavor. The human being, who is constituted by being addressed by God in His Word--both in His Law and in His Gospel--, is subject, first and foremost and universally, to God's directive, "You shall have no other gods before Me," meaning: "We should fear, love, and trust in God above all things." All else, all other human action, must, at least paradigmatically, flow from obedience to the First Commandment. Thus, for example, Commandment Four means that "we should fear and love God so that we do not despise or anger our parents and other authorities, but honor them, serve and obey them, love and cherish them." The human being addressed by God in His Word is also socially located, and that social location does not remove God's address to him. Rather, because he stands under God's universal address in the First Commandment, within his social location, his "station in life," his action within that realm flows from his first being addressed by the God who is to be feared, loved, and trusted above all things. In other words, no matter in what situation the Christian finds himself, he remains as he has always been: addressed by God, "called" by God. His vocation is therefore first and foremost to act in the way that a creature addressed by God is to act, by keeping the Ten Commandments. Note that there is no prescription for a certain career-path, no age-limit top or bottom, no boundary set but that set down by the fact of one's calling, one's being addressed by God.
Second, it is specifically under the Gospel that the God who presents Himself in the First Commandment demonstrates Himself to be worthy of the fear, love, and trust He demands. Put differently, Christ in His cross reveals the merciful heart of His Father. 1 Corinthians 2.16: "'Who has known the mind of God to take counsel with Him?' We have His mind--Christ." This self-disclosure of God the Father's heart in the cross of Christ evokes, calls forth, the confession that "God has made me and all creatures; He has given me my body and soul, eyes, ears, and all my members, my reason and all my senses, etc." The cross of Christ--that element of Pauline kerygma that the saint gleefully exclaims he had determined to know nothing other than among his hearers--becomes the flash-point, the locus of revelation, through which and in which the gracious will of God the Father is made known and through which and in which the Christian is able to confess, "God has made me and all creatures, etc." The Christian ethical entailment of this is simply a repeat of the chorus in the Ten Commandments. "We should fear and love God so that we don't..., but do...." ~ "For all this it is my duty to thank and praise, serve and obey Him." Again, no specified career path, no age limit. The Christian's vocation is determined by his being addressed by God, first in the Law and then in the Gospel.
The creedal explanation, however, "thank and praise, serve and obey," not only recalls the obligation laid upon me as a creature addressed by God and expressed in the Ten Commandments, but also reflects back to those gifts of God given to me under the First Article of the Creed. My thanks and praise, my service and obedience, to God, are carried out through the profitable use, the exercise, and the development of His gifts attached to me as addressed and confessing subject. This is how Luther puts it in the Explanation of the First Article in the Large Catechism, §19, 23:
Now, all that we have, and whatever else is in heaven and upon the earth, is daily given, preserved, and kept for us by God. Therefore, it is clearly suggested and concluded that it is our duty to love, praise, and thank Him for these things without ceasing [1 Thess. 5.17–18]. In short, we should serve Him with all these things, as He demands and has taught in the Ten Commandments.... In this way the heart would be warmed and kindled to be thankful, and to use all such good things to honor and praise God. [ed. Paul T. McCain, et al., Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions, 2nd ed. (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2006), pp. 400–401; bold print added]
Lutheran higher education thus falls (a) under the First Article of the Creed; and (b) within the realm of Christian vocation, not [Christian] vocationalism, and is that intellectual and social space wherein the gift of the reason is, in a special and focused way, profitably used, exercised, and developed. As such, confessional Lutheran higher education seeks to use tools uniquely adapted to the development of the mind to ends that honor and praise God, above all to aid the recipients of such an education to use their reason faithfully to confess the God of the Creed. In precisely this service, the Wittenberg Reformers enlisted the "human arts," the arts that are at the center of being a human being endowed with reason, the "liberal arts," and the best of the human arts that had come down through the Western tradition. This was undertaken without regard for one's station in life--undertaken without a sense of vocationalism, but in the pursuit of vocation, lutheranly understood. Even more specifically, it was undertaken in pursuit of the godly and profitable use, exercise, and development of that uniquely human quality and good, the reason.


Diane Johnson said...

Maximi momenti in concepto vocationis est potestas recte audiendi. Quam multo facilius est auscultare parentes magistrosque qui nos exhortantur ad istum "vocationalismum."

Tom Rank said...


Very good. The distinction between vocation and vocationalism is one that will be hard to overcome, I'm afraid. Part of the issue is that vocationalism allows colleges to show that education translates into dollars (i.e. good salary). To view a liberal arts college more in the classical sense may very well require a change in mindset in college administration and in many faculty members, too. However, the thought processes need to begin, and your blog helps us get our feet moving in the right direction. Thanks!

theMom said...

To what exactly are you referring with the term vocationalism? Are you addressing the idea that a college education should have a career goal?

Good post, I think, if that's what you mean. I do understand all you're saying about the term vocation, which is what I try to always stress with my kids at all their various stages of discontent. :-)

But I was not sure with what particular of modern education you were contrasting it with your term vocationalism.

theMom said...

Tom, I know this is old, perhaps you'll never read it, but I'm going to comment on your comment anyway. what is a Lutheran liberal arts college for if not to lead the way by teaching such a distinction? I don't mean to be flippant or catty. But idealistic as it seems, those who are in a position to direct such an institution can have a trickle-down societal effect by simply being that which they claim to be and letting the long term chips fall where they may. As in "Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these things will be added unto you." and "For we know that all things work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to His purpose." (You, being more theologically astute than I, may find some reason these passages do not fit what I'm trying to say; that's what I have to risk when going up against a theologian. I'm used to it.)

Back to my point, an institution, which out of fear or pressure turns from a Godly goal may end up sewing the seeds of vanity in the sense used by the preacher in Ecclesiastes.

Let me say this a different way. I'm going with a Mary paraphrase definition of liberal arts education. Liberal arts education provides well-rounded knowledge of where we are in the scheme of things of this world (science, history, math, sociology...) and instructs in how to successfully make use of that knowledge (analysis, logic, rhetoric...).

And Lutheran, by Jon's definition, adds the dimensions of knowledge of Sin and Grace; Law and Gospel; and emphasis on glorifying God with all our liberal arts knowledge and by our use of it, in whatever we do.

So if an institution is fulfilling those Godly goals, it ought to trust that God will bless it according to His will. If the focus shifts to financial or enrollment considerations, or any other secular stability, any success we may think we see is vanity.

Of course, I understand that many such Lutheran liberal arts colleges include a daily chapel service and God's Word does not return to him void. That is not the issue I'm addressing. I would never disdain any successes of that nature.

But in the sense of training for occupation and career and employment, and the apparent successes thereof, those are vain goals if achieved outside of the primary focus of Christian vocation.

Jon Bruss said...

Dear Mary (theMom), I lost your first posting and responded to it under the Dana College piece, I believe.

You are right on the money, and that's the big issue. And I would NOT say that your definition of liberal education lacks in any way at all. In fact, it's a great encapsulation of what we're (all, I think) trying to say here.

To come to Tom's defense, I think that what he was saying is that the post was on the money, but that a certain cultural and institutional untidiness has developed while we (orthodox Lutherans in North America) have been snoozing at the helm, and that it's going to take a great deal to get all the sailors pulling the right ropes again--in fact, that it's going to be difficult to teach the right ropes again. Along the way, mutinies and rebellions, of both the active and passive variety, are bound to occur, and some sailors, perhaps even the one who tries to bring the ship to heel, may have to walk the plank. (How's that for an extended metaphor?)

This is the issue WITHIN the institutions as they exist. However, one real possibility, it seems, is to think beyond what's already there and start from scratch--painful, difficult, and risky as it may be--which is, again, part of what we're exploring here and would love to have your input on.


theMom said...

Here's another tangential thought, but I think it's still valid to the discussion. Homeschooling my kids has made me aware of the lack of connection between vocation and higher education..

I fail to, in my home, emphasize college much at all. I think a certain segment of the HS community has this tendency. If we teach our kids to love to learn and if we give them the foundational tools with which to do so, they can pursue higher ed when the time comes, or not. But our emphasis is more on vocation in the sense of WHATEVER you do, do it to God's glory. Everything is a good work when done within the grace given us in Christ.

So it turns into a kind of guilt thing among HS parents. If we emphasize college and "getting somewhere" we are going awry. But if we don't emphasize continued education, I sometimes feel as though I am unintentionally despising the gift and privilege of higher education.

But then on yet a third hand, is the quality of higher education benefited by an influx of less academically inclined student? I mean, when I think of the great minds a liberal arts education has produced, and I compare these greats to the typical "boozing and riding on government loans" college student, I can't seem to summon much guilt that I'm not encouraging my kids to pursue such an experience.

Of course, I'd love it if they were great brains and very academically accomplished. But I want even more strongly for them to be God fearing men and women who are able to communicate the Gospel and live as responsible citizens.

Not to mention that anyone can pursue a liberal arts education without the official "title" or degree program, simply by being well read and engaged in life-long learning. Oops, here's my little personal rebellion against my own college education peeking through...