The Enduring Power of Vocation

Employee working on laptop at desk

Today, most use the term ‘vocation’ interchangeably with others such as ‘occupation’, ‘profession’, and ‘career’. While mere etymology cannot unravel the present conflation of these terms, it is important to observe the distinct historical connotation of ‘vocation’, which comes from vocatio—‘a call or summons’. Whereas words such as ‘profession’ (what one professes to do) and ‘career’ (where one is going in life) imply an active choice on behalf of an individual, the term ‘vocation’ denotes an external invitation to which the individual must respond.

In the 16th century, the understanding of vocation was radically transformed by the Reformers—especially Martin Luther and John Calvin. The greatest thrust of this change was that it made vocation a universal reality for all members of society, not just for priests and monks. It made everyone equal before God.

Today in the West, there is no consensus about what exactly constitutes a career—much less what it means to be ‘called’. Perhaps the most common view is either pragmatic or Epicurean: whatever is most useful or whatever is most satisfying. This fragmented understanding of work, along with recent geopolitical discussions around employment and immigration,[4] suggests that our world is ripe for a re-envisioning of what it means to have a vocation in life.

Accordingly, this paper will offer suggestions for how a doctrine of vocation can transform our perceptions of employment today. This paper does not endorse a simple return to a former period of history, but it is crucial to review how our understandings of work and service have evolved in the past 500 years in order to understand the precedents for the situation today. Therefore, the first half of this paper will: 1) examine the doctrine of vocation during the Reformation; 2) consider to what extent this doctrine was applied, modified, and abandoned in subsequent centuries. The second half will then attempt to provide some points of application for today.