The Calling Can Kill

Callings in secular modernity are very bad but also very sticky ideas. Bad because harmful. Sticky because like beautiful yet bloody siren songs.

Remember: in the middle ages, callings were reserved for priests and monks only. Monks were called to follow Jesus and thus to renounce family life. To be called to be a monk just was to be called to lead–to quote a review I wrote 7 years ago–“a deeply religious way of life,” one bound by “stability, fidelity, and obedience.”

Fine, but wanna see an epochal transformation? Sure thing. Luther’s bold claim was that all Christians could receive a calling from God, regardless of the kind of work he or she did. Yeah, in one sense, a needful corrective. Yet in another sense, what a disaster for us today!

Here’s C. Michael Thompson, a Christian, from The Congruent Life: for Luther, “every kind of work could be blessed as a calling…. That is, every person has a calling in life if he or she will but hear it, and that call is unique to him or her alone” (p. 40). And something could be a calling just if “[t]he place God calls you is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet” (Frederick Buchner, cited in The Congruent Life, p. 41).

Sounds good, doesn’t it?, but oh, brother. Just think: you’re thrown into a mysterious world and, wow, your unique gifts shall be perfectly well-suited for what the world needs.

It could be coherent, yes, in a world planned by God, but what about in secular modernity? Doubtful. Take God out of the picture, now factor in our actual economic system (which, I gotta tell you, ain’t perfectly meritorious and just) and instead you get dukkha, the endless desire to see your unique talents fitted to a work role that, lo and behold, satisfies some of the world’s hunger.

Naive? Yes. Possible? Of course. Probable? No. Destructive? Very likely. For what has been left out is precisely how Total Work, the 500-plus-year-old process by which human beings got transformed into Workers, is more than happy to co-opt the calling for the sake of making us all into Workers.

Are you a doctor? Then sacrifice everything you have for the sake of the calling within a “corporate medical system” wherein you may be “cynically manipulated.” Get burnt out, be morally injured, consider committing suicide. Why? Partially because you believed that your work was a calling and that that calling required everything of you.

Once a way of worshipping God by furthering His creation, the calling is now idolatry, a recipe for misery, and ultimately a disaster.