Before and Beyond Vocation
Religion & Liberty Online

Before and Beyond Vocation

factory workers, monotonyDiscussions about faith-work integration are on the rise, with an ever-increasing number of related books, sermons, and blog posts (ahem) appearing with every passing day.

Over at Faith, Work & Culture, Jeff Haanen poses a challenging question to the movement, asking, “Is the faith and work movement just for white guys?” (HT):

Just a cursory glance around the faith and work landscape, and you’ll find a bunch of middle class white men (with the occasional woman or Asian). So what’s going on here? Does integrating your faith and work only matter for white professionals and not African-Americans or Latinos? (For the sake of this post, you’ll have to excuse some generalizations.)

After offering a brief history of 20th-century American prosperity and the widespread self-actualization that followed, Haanen offers his hypothesis:

Twentieth century America did not bless all ethnic groups evenly with wealth and comfort. African Americans lived under the thumb of institutionalized racism even years after the civil rights movement, and struggled for years to acquire the kind of jobs, and thus material comfort, that their white counterparts did. Today, it’s mostly Latinos who occupy the bottom rung of the socioeconomic ladder; they make even less than blacks per capita across age groups.

All that to say this: while white guys were wondering about their purpose in life, blacks and Latinos were just trying to survive. When I was a pastor of a Latino congregation, it wasn’t terribly surprising that questions of existential despair or vocational fit never arose. Dignity and providing for the family trumped “fulfilling the cultural mandate.” Getting a job and paying rent was a bit higher on the hierarchy of needs.

Haanen’s point about disparate shifts in the makeup and distribution of work is an important one. The minimum-wage McDonald’s worker will likely face a host of spiritual challenges distinct from those faced by the white-collar executive. Likewise, the differences in time and comfort outside of that work will play no small part in defining that struggle. As Haanen also indicates, “intangible” factors like racism are bound to transform these struggles further, even among workers in the same job type and industry.

But having recognized all of this, it’s also important to recognize that just because a worker hasn’t the time, resources, or energy for armchair theologizing on “vocational fit,” it doesn’t mean that meaning, purpose, and transcendent activity isn’t taking place amid the strenuous circumstances. Whether or not we are actively thinking and talking about “cultural mandate,” the basic dignity of our work and the basic activity of serving society and providing for one’s family is an integral part of fulfilling that mandate. At a certain level, “needs-based” work has a forceful way of tempering our individualistic inclinations, and at that level, I think we need to seriously reconsider how closely we’re aligning “vocation” with our own personal preferences or our end-game goals. Does God not also call us to that initial job or task that begins a longer trajectory filled with other more “fulfilling” things?

Indeed, particularly among my own generation, it seems as though our in-depth discussions about “work-faith integration” often descend into unrealistic day-dreaming that’s far too detached from outward thinking about basic social responsibilities and moral obligations. When I survey each year’s crop of confident “world-changer” college graduates, my initial reaction is to be optimistic about their prospects and appreciative of their energy, yet when I wake up the next day to observe a corresponding rise in lifelong Starbucks baristas (who have “dreams” of one day doing x) and live-at-mom’s thirty-somethings (who have “dreams” of one day doing y), I can’t help but notice how the very privilege that enables our work-faith contemplations can just as soon hinder us if we fail to recognize it and leverage appropriately. We need faith, hope, and confidence, but if we don’t pair that with some sense of real-world needs and basic social obligations, we’re likely to be trapped by a self-absorbed ethic that’s blind to its own comfortability.

As Lester DeKoster notes in his book, Work: The Meaning of Your Life:

We are sometimes advised to try giving meaning to our work (instead of finding it there) by thinking of the job in religious terms such as calling or vocation. What seems at first like a helpful perspective, however, deals with work as if from the outside. We find ourselves still trying to endow our own work with meaning. We are trying to find the content in the label, without real success. The meaning we seek has to be in work itself.

Now, I don’t mean to overly romanticize the difficulty of such labor, just as I don’t mean to downplay the significance and importance of the faith-and-work movement (it’s why I’m here, folks). We should always be pressing forward to alleviate poverty wherever we find it and unleash human potential as best we can, and as Haanen duly points out, the “’just for white guys’ stereotype will soon be a thing of the past,” in no small part due to the benefits of globalization and ever-expanding free exchange. But as the great work being done by PovertyCure illuminates, an environment of dignified, needs-based work can often be the beginning of prosperity and human flourishing.

The faith-and-work movement is a healthy development in a church that has shown a peculiar fondness for setting up limiting and restricting walls between ministry and business. Yet it will be much more likely to yield good and lasting fruit if we openly recognize our newfound position of privilege and take care to remember where we came come from. Vocational clarity is incredibly important, but we shouldn’t expect to find meaning in The Dream if we can’t see it where it already exists.

For more on restoring a proper view of work and meaning, see Work: The Meaning of Your Life.

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Joseph Sunde

Joseph Sunde's work has appeared in venues such as the Foundation for Economic Education, First Things, The Christian Post, The Stream, Intellectual Takeout, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, The City, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work, as well as on PowerBlog. He resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with his wife and four children.