This summer, I had the opportunity to attend my 7th Acton University, the 1st since joining the team at Made to Flourish. ActonU was a rich experience of learning and conversation with friends, both old and new.
ActonU can be a daunting experience as you have the opportunity to choose 11 classes from more than 100 options. Unlike any conference you have ever attended, Acton University draws 1100 attendees from 60 countries and a diversity of religious traditions (this year’s list included those claiming Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, Muslim, and Jewish traditions as well as those identifying as agnostic, and non-believer).
Acton University is a unique, four-day exploration of the intellectual foundations of a free society. Guided by a distinguished, international faculty, Acton University is an opportunity to deepen your knowledge and integrate philosophy, theology, business, development – with sound, market-based, economics. ~ from the website
I probably attended more courses this year than I ever have, combined. But if I had to choose my favorite course out of all those I attended this year, it would be Dr. Daryl Charles’ “Take This Job and Shove It: Theological Reflections on Vocation, Calling, and Work.” Dr. Charles is an affiliate scholar in Theology & Ethics for the Acton Institute and is also contributing editor of Providence: A Journal of Christianity and American Foreign Policy and the journal Touchstone. He is an affiliated scholar of the John Jay Institute. He has written, co-written, edited, or co-edited fourteen books including Natural Law and Religious Freedom and Retrieving the Natural Law. His forthcoming book, America’s Wars: A Just War Perspective was co-written with Mark David Hall and will be published by University of Notre Dame Press.
I had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Charles to learn about how he became interested in the topic of vocation, his goals for his lecture, his discussion of doubt and despair as it relates to vocation, and a few other topics. I’m excited to share his responses with you here.
Chris Robertson: What initially drew you to the topic of vocation?
Daryl Charles: Like a steady drip-drip-drip (so to speak), this topic has come to dominate my thinking in recent years. I would point to a confluence of varied (though related) factors that have contributed to this personal growing interest. At a basic level, though, they may reduce to two. Thirty years of teaching and working in a largely Christian liberal arts environment, coupled with my experience over the last forty years in diverse congregational expressions of the Body of Christ, have convinced me of the Church’s need – more than ever – to recover the lost notion of vocation.
One general conversation tends to recur in the context of teaching, counseling or advising students of all ages (not just those experiencing “senior panic”). That conversation very often has to do with direction in life, perceiving a sense of “calling,” and discerning how to use one’s gifts, abilities, and burdens in a way that is both strategic and meaningful.
Unfortunately, it can be difficult to find serious discourse on vocation within the church. Perhaps we should not be surprised. After all, most pastors and priests have not spent a significant season of their lives working in the marketplace. Out of college they probably went to seminary with a view toward church work, “full-time Christian service,” “missions,” or the monastery. Consequently, most pastors, priests, and Christian leaders are either unaware of the problem, indifferent to it, or perhaps intimidated by it. The result is that standard teaching and preaching are devoid of a proper understanding of vocation.
Vocation properly understood is all-encompassing and transcendent – not limited to a job, an occupation, an employment, even when it encompasses these and more. Given its comprehensive nature, then, it is no exaggeration to call vocation a “theology of the Christian life.” An awareness of vocation helps make sense of every season of our lives, even those seeming “detours,” since there is a time or season for everything under heaven (Eccl. 3:1ff).
CR: What were your goals for your lecture at Acton University 2018?
DC: Four aims guided my lecture: (1) to emphasize the centrality of vocation (=calling) to Christian theology and Christian experience; (2) to view work and human activity in light of the over-arching rubric of vocation; (3) to develop a “theology of work” that is informed by the major doctrines of creation, redemption, incarnation, and consummation; and (4) to consider a “wisdom” perspective on work and human activity.
CR: I would be interested to learn about your study of Ecclesiastes and vocation and what you have gleaned.
DC: Ecclesiastes is part of a literary genre called “wisdom literature.” The wisdom perspective, which was common to ancient Near Eastern culture and not merely to Israel, concerns itself with how to live. One conspicuous recurring shift in the book concerns the value of human toil and work.
One of these is the following rather remarkable observation: “When God gives any man wealth and possessions and enables him to enjoy them, to accept his lot and be happy in his work – this is a gift of God…because God keeps him occupied with gladness of heart” (5:18-20). Notice the reasoning behind this statement: satisfaction in one’s work is “a gift of God” (a repetition, and thus underscoring, of an earlier statement). And if this is not enough, later on, the writer reinforces this fact: “joy will accompany him [the believer] in his work all the days of the life God has given him under the sun” (8:15) – this despite humans’ inability to comprehend what God does.
CR: Could you help us understand the connections between doubt/despair/meaning and vocation?
DC: Earlier this summer, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published data on the rising suicide rates in our fifty states. Significantly, suicide is one of only three causes of death on the rise in the age of modern medicine. CDC researchers examined state-level trends in suicide rates from 1999-2016 and found that more than half of people who died by suicide did not have a known diagnosed mental health condition at the time of death. Factors contributing to suicide risk included relationship problems or loss, substance abuse/misuse, physical health problems, job and money issues, and legal stress.
Within the Christian community, there exists a reticence to address this subject. Among more pious, evangelically-minded types there may be a tendency when confronting the problem of depression or despair among believers simply to quote scripture or assume the attitude, “Get over it and walk in the Spirit.” This may be coupled with a general inability to relate in meaningful ways to unbelievers, and hence, an inability to empathize with people who genuinely struggle with doubt and despair, especially despair leading toward suicidal thinking. And yet such struggles are universal in the human experience.
My presentation at Acton University was not an attempt to address the need for counseling or therapy, nor did it aim to address the issue of suffering per se. Rather, my concern was the need for Christian men and women to find clarity regarding our vocational calling. It is a topic which often goes unanswered – indeed, unaddressed – by pastors, our churches, and most preaching and teaching – a topic that desperately needs to see the light of day.
With this need in view, then, my AU thesis was essentially twofold: to argue that (1) life is meaningful or meaningless to the extent that we are aware of our vocational calling; and (2) vocation, calling, and work are theological in nature and interlocking in their character; hence, they need to be viewed together. Let it be stated with sufficient clarity: it is not hyperbole or exaggeration to maintain that life is meaningful or meaningless to the extent that we are aware of our vocational calling. Such an idea finds confirmation existentially in peoples’ lives, as therapists and counselors will readily testify and as wisdom literature (Ecclesiastes in particular) reminds us.
CR: Is there anything else you would like “The Green Room” audience to understand about vocation in particular?
DC: In the context of the emergence of the “Confessing Church” three generations removed, theologian Emil Brunner stated the truth regarding the importance of the notion of vocation. As an idea, Brunner noted, vocation (=calling) “has been degraded, so disgracefully, into something quite trivial” and “has been denuded of its daring and liberating religious meaning” to such an extent that “we might even ask whether it would not be better to renounce it altogether.”
On the other hand, he insisted, “it is a conception which in its Scriptural sense is so full of force and so pregnant in meaning” that “to renounce this expression would mean losing a central part of the Christian message. We must not throw it away, but we must regain its original meaning” (this is from The Divine Imperative, Westminster Press, 1947, pp. 205-6).
Brunner made this declaration as storm clouds were gathering over Europe in the 1930s (the German original was published in 1932 under the title Das Gebot und die Ordnungen). One might conclude that, quite tragically, the Church did not heed his call. With Brunner, we too stand in a period of extraordinary social upheaval. And with Brunner, we might argue as well that to renounce the notion of vocation is to lose a central – if not the central – part of the Christian message. Time will tell whether the Christian Church – at least in the West – will “regain its original meaning.”
In any event, I stand by my original claim, namely, that life is meaningful or meaningless to the extent that we recognize our vocational calling.
Thank you, Dr. Charles, for a thoughtful presentation on vocation to the Acton University audience as well as for unpacking some of the central ideas of your address here in this interview. Thanks in particular for your discussion of vocation in the context of doubt and despair. So many struggle in silence on a daily basis. I pray your words here will be light and healing to many.
Acton Institute frequently makes available the audio of past addresses. Check back at the Acton University website for this lecture’s availability.