The idea of “vocation” has had an important history in the West. The word suggests that we are “called” to do something. It was long used by Christians to emphasize the idea that lifelong service to the church was something that one should not choose for oneself on a practical basis but rather should undertake only out of a definite sense that God called one to be a priest, a monk, or a nun. The fact that these all took vows of celibacy accented their special role.
In the fifteenth century the Protestant Reformers argued that every Christian has a “calling” or “vocation,” and that none of these required celibacy. Serving the institutional church was just one vocation among many. Christians were equally called to be lawyers or doctors, cobblers or merchants. Whatever one’s calling, one should pursue it conscientiously as one’s service of God and neighbor.
This teaching could lead to a high sense of service through one’s daily work. In a feudal society it worked quite well. Every role required both knowledge and skill, and each had its contribution to make to the whole. Emphasizing this could give to all a fuller sense of participation. However, with the shift to industrial capitalism, one’s work was understood as a necessity in order to live. The word “vocation” came to mean for many people little more than a job.
Responding to the Call of the Moment
Nevertheless, the idea that we are “called” can still evoke a deeper meaning. Whitehead radicalized it. He taught that every momentary event is called to be the best that can be achieved in that moment at that place. His terminology was that there is an “initial aim” for every “actual occasion.” Like the traditional “calling” this aim is derived from God. The implications for personal experience are much like those of the original idea of “vocation,” but now generalized through existentialism. I am called, right now, in this and every moment, to be and do the best I can. There is a calling for each moment.
Fostering Healthy Relations with Other People
Often this call focuses on relations with another person. That person may be my spouse, my child, my friend, or a stranger. That personal presence participates in my momentary experience. I am who I am in this moment partly because of the presence of that other person. That presence enriches my experience, and the more open I am to it, and to what it offers, the more I am enriched. To some extent I feel the feelings of the other.
Sometimes it is enough simply to be there with the other. But often one is called to something more. The other may be lonely or anxious or insecure. I am called to respond. Perhaps I need only signal that I am open to listening. That is a step of which most of us are capable even if we often do not take it. We prefer to speak ourselves rather than hear others into speech. Accordingly, others sense that their feelings and needs are not of interest to us. Instead, we want to draw them into our projects. True listening and responding are rare.
This kind of openness to the other does not exclude our speaking. Indeed, sometimes it is only when we share our hesitations and weakness that the other is assured that we can hear without judgment or ridicule. Adjusting our need to be heard and affirmed by others by the recognition of their need to be heard and affirmed is the beginning of ethics.
We are often called by or through the other’s need to do more than listen. Some of the other’s needs are for food and shelter and safety. To some extent, we can and should respond directly, especially when the other is a friend or family member. And there are practical needs of the stranger that also call for immediate practical response.
Fostering Healthy Relations with the Natural World
But the world that surrounds us and grounds our experience moment by moment is not limited to other people. Western ethics has been far too focused on interpersonal relations. Our pets play an important role, as do plants and birds, and insects, and grass, and trees, and soil, and rocks. These “others” offer themselves to us and claim a place in our experience. They too have their needs, massively so today.
The needs of the human stranger and the natural world often lead to another level of ethical action. We can respond only to a very small number of these multifarious needs. Our personal awareness of them is miniscule in comparison with the reality. Recognizing this leads us to a concern for the health of the larger society and the natural environment. We want a human community in which all take responsibility for the wellbeing of all, including the natural world.
As we reflect about ourselves we recognize that who we are and what we are is largely a function of the societies of which we are a part. I am an American, a Californian, a member of a retirement community, a churchman, a theologian, and so forth. My participation in these human societies and the landscapes with which they are connected enables others to identify me and shapes my self-identification as well. My wellbeing is largely a function of the wellbeing of these societies and their natural contexts, and I know that this is true for other members. To whatever extent the societies in which we inescapably live become authentic communities of mutual care we all benefit. While I can directly respond to very few of the needs of my fellow members, through building community and healing the natural environment I can help many indirectly.
Helping build just and sustainable communities
To whatever extent I listen to others, I am already engaged in building community. This is the level at which all can fully participate. But most are called to other, less personal, ways of shaping and strengthening community. This may involve attending meetings, working on committees and accepting particular responsibilities. In some cases it may require me to be active in the politics of the society. Sometimes I may be asked to represent the community to outsiders. In all these cases I am called to seek the well being of the community rather than my private advantage over other members. Occasionally this involves real personal sacrifice. More often my subordination of private interest to that of the community ends up as deeply rewarding to me.
Reflecting upon and advocating compassionate public policies
But responding to the call to serve the community through active participation in its life leads me to understand that this ethical activity raises questions at still another level. Sometimes I see that the community is acting in ways that are self-destructive. In our world this appears especially in the massive damage human communities are inflicting on the natural world. We can envisage acting more wisely. This is the level of policy. A community needs participation in its life whatever its policies may be, but that it keep adapting its policies to new situations and improving them is also of great importance to all its participants. Justice and sustainability are crucial goals of good policy. We are called to support good policies, and that means to involve ourselves in the politics of the communities in which we live. For some, this is their major vocation.
Often one sees that in its zeal to do well, one’s community seeks to advance at the expense of others. My ethical subordination of my private interests to those of the community turns out to be an unethical contribution to harming other communities. This can happen at all levels. In the past, deep convictions have often led religious communities to harm each other.
Critiquing collective Idolatries (e.g. Christianism and American Exceptionalism)
In our world, this ethical complexity appears most often and most painfully in relation to nations. As an American, my vocation includes active citizenship and participation in national life. I am called to strengthen and improve that national life and to protect it from encroachments by others. But I discover that some of what I do, ethically, for the sake of my nation, in the larger scheme of things, harms other peoples. I am called to envision and support national policies that work for the larger good and not simply for the power of my nation over others. I have identified some other collective idolatries that seem to me very dangerous in Deconstructing Modernity.
Analyzing and Challenging Basic Assumptions about the World
When I realize that devotion to my religious community or my nation is harmful to humanity as a whole, I cannot simply solve the problem by trying to be more moral. The general meaning of morality reflects an understanding of religious or national communities that in fact leads them into conflict. Self-sacrificial service of one’s nation may lead to killing those who are self-sacrificially serving their nations.
We are called to ask questions at a different level. What about the assumptions that shape this ordinary understanding of morality as service of the common good of my community. Asking this question may be thought of as another dimension of ethics. We may call it the ethics of thought.
When we realize that doing what seems right and good often ends up harming others, we also realize that something is wrong with our ideas. Often these ideas are widespread in our communities. Daring to question the beliefs that are simply accepted by most people is a special vocation. Many are called to be open to such questioning. For some this challenge to common assumptions is a major vocation.
Once we grasp the importance of criticizing the assumptions that underlie our actions and even our reflections on morality, we can extend this to other areas. There are assumptions that underlie our choices of public policy, our educational practice, our legal system, our social and natural sciences. When we study the history of these areas of thought, it becomes clear that assumptions now recognized as unsatisfactory have played a large role. There is no reason to suppose that those assumptions that now operate are free from problems. The ethics of thought is as important to human beings as the ethics of personal relations, the ethics of community, and the ethics of policy.
Accepting the responsibility to be unpopular or disruptive (for the sake of the common good)
Ethical behavior always has its dangers. When we genuinely listen to a stranger, we may find ourselves drawn into ways of thinking and even of acting that are uncomfortable and disruptive. When we seek the well being of communities, we may antagonize those who personally profit through distortions of community life. When we seek to direct our governments away from self-aggrandizing policies, we are likely to be called unpatriotic. When we question the assumptions that are widespread in our cultures, we upset many who have based their lives and their thought upon them.
But hope for the world lies in ethics, and today this is especially true of the ethics of thought, the vocation to analyze assumptions. Established assumptions about human beings and economic policies, and finance, and international affairs have led humanity to the brink of catastrophe. If we do not challenge and uproot these assumptions, there is little chance of changing behavior sufficiently to save the world.
Note: John Cobb has offered his own ideas on the assumptions that need to be challenged. We are called to challenge anthropocentrism, individuality, sense-bound empiricism, small group loyalty, and conventional morality. See Foundations for a New Civilization. He has shared alternative and constructive ideas for living lightly and gently on the planet. See Ten Ideas for Saving the Planet. In addition, and importantly, he offers an analysis of assumptions which, in his view, must be challenged (or de-constructed) in our time. See Deconstructing Modernity.