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The importance of recovering vocation
Robert Bellah’s landmark book, Habits of the Heart, helped many people name the thing that was (and still is) eating away at the cohesiveness of our culture—“expressive individualism.”
Elsewhere, Bellah argued that Americans had created a culture that elevated individual choice and expression to such a level that there was no longer any shared life, no commanding truths or values that tied us together. As Bellah wrote, “. . . we are moving to an ever greater validation of the sacredness of the individual person, [but] our capacity to imagine a social fabric that would hold individuals together is vanishing. . . . The sacredness of the individual is not balanced by any sense of the whole or concern for the common good.” But near the end of Habits, the author proposes one measure that would go a long way toward reweaving the unraveling culture:
To make a real difference . . . [there would have to be] a reappropriation of the idea of vocation or calling, a return in a new way to the idea of work as a contribution to the good of all and not merely as a means to one’s own advancement.
Work as a calling
Bellah's statement is remarkable. If he is right, one of the hopes for our unraveling society is the recovery of the idea that all human work is not merely a job but a calling. The Latin word vocare—to call—is at the root of our common word “vocation.” Today the word often means simply a job, but that was not the original sense. A job is a vocation only if someone else calls you to do it and you do it for them rather than for yourself. And so our work can be a calling only if it is reimagined as a mission of service to something beyond merely our own interests. Thinking of work mainly as a means of self-fulfillment and self-realization slowly crushes a person and—as Bellah and many others have pointed out—undermines society itself.
Every good endeavor, even the simplest ones, pursued in response to God’s calling, can matter forever.
But if we are to “reappropriate” an older idea, we must look at that idea’s origin. In this case, the source of the idea of work as vocation is the Christian Scriptures. The Bible teems with wisdom, resources, and hope for anyone who is learning to work, looking for work, trying to work, or going to work. And when we say that the Christian Scriptures “give us hope” for work, we at once acknowledge both how deeply frustrating and difficult work can be and how profound the spiritual hope must be if we are going to face the challenge of pursuing vocation in this world.
What lasts? What matters?
Everyone imagines accomplishing things, and everyone finds him or herself largely incapable of producing them. Everyone wants to be successful rather than forgotten, and everyone wants to make a difference in life. But that is beyond the control of any of us. If this life is all there is, then everything will eventually burn up in the death of the sun and no one will even be around to remember anything that has ever happened. Everyone will be forgotten, nothing we do will make any difference, and all good endeavors, even the best, will come to naught.
Unless there is God. If the God of the Bible exists, and there is a True Reality beneath and behind this one, and this life is not the only life, then every good endeavor, even the simplest ones, pursued in response to God’s calling, can matter forever. That is what the Christian faith promises. “In the Lord, your labor is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58).
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This article is an adapted excerpt from the recently released book Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Work by Timothy Keller with Katherine Leary Alsdorf. Published by Dutton, A Member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. Excerpted with permission from the publisher. All Rights Reserved.