Some Thoughts on Work, Ethics, and Vocation

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Lilly Program for Vocation and Ethical Leadership
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By Jeanne Halgren Kilde

Past Curricular Director of the Lilly Project and visiting professor of Religious Studies

The concept of vocation, a word used to describe a wide range of understandings of work, animates this project.  By indicating what we think about the activity to which we devote most of our lives, reflecting on vocation can help us understand who we are.

Protestant Understandings of Vocation

Derived from the Latin word vocare, meaning to call or summon, vocation appeared in English during the Renaissance and was popularized during the Reformation.  Christians had historically used the term to describe a summons or call from God to fill a religious office.  Thus, vocation highlighted a link between divine desire and human work.  An individual's service to God answered this call.

Service to God, however, for early Protestant reformers like John Calvin and Martin Luther, did not necessarily lie exclusively within the confines of the Church.  For them, vocation could encompass many occupations; laboring for the glory of God could include everything from manual labor to secular professions to domestic labor.  All work, at least in theory, was sanctified.  Following this line of thought, pietistic groups like the Shakers maintained that through work individuals expressed their love of God.  With the development of capitalism, this view of sanctified labor became codified in the phrase "Protestant work ethic," and the ideal of work for the service of God, many argued, was transformed into work for the service of wealth.

Both these religious and secular uses of the term held currency in American Protestant society through the early 20th century.  Both, but particularly the former, hold an important historical significance on the Macalester campus, for the belief in a call to religious service clearly informed the lives of many members of the first several graduating classes: 45% of all Mac graduates through 1910 opted for religious careers.

Vocation within Twentieth Century Secular Society

Through the 20th century, the course of the nation and Macalester shifted significantly, making secularized uses of the term vocation more relevant.  The secularized view of vocation as any type of occupation - devoid of any conception of sanctification - grew prominent.  Particularly in the post-WWII era, with the GI Bill, the space race, and growing desires for white collar employment, working toward a career entailed taking specialized preparatory or vocational courses.  At Macalester in the 1950s, these included offerings in social work, medical technology, business administration, secretarial studies, pre-engineering, pre-nursing, and pre-home economics.  Yet even here, vocation suggested more than simply a job, for the gendered character of these courses implied that certain types of work were better suited to certain types of people.  Thus, although the religious content of the term grew less relevant, the idea of a special relationship between individuals and their work remained.

In more recent years, this merging of the religious and the secular connotations into a belief in the special, individualized nature of ideal work has retained its appeal.  One may be said to have a vocation or "call," but now this is less often interpreted as a call from God than an internal summons, a call from one's own heart or a personal desire to find an occupation uniquely suited to the self.  Our jobs, we feel, should reflect our true selves.  Ideally, we should devote our work lives to the activity that we do best.  For students, an important college task is discovering those aptitudes and talents in order to put them to use in the workplace.

Thinking About the Meanings of Work and the Concepts of Vocation

These and many other connotations of the word "vocation" are not without ideological content, nor should they be uncritically accepted or used.  Understandings of vocation have frequently been hierarchical and have defined specific, often rigid, borders.  Occupations have been viewed as class, race, and gender specific, as has been the whole concept of vocation itself, whether in terms of service to God or in secular usage.  The view of work as sanctified has been perverted at times to justify both acquisitiveness and exploitation.  Globally, few people are in a position to discover, much less base their working lives on, any special abilities they may possess.  If we move beyond the Christian religion, we find that these ideas of work and vocation are far from universal.  In fact, in some cultures, the idea of seeking an occupation, of working to advance the self, is meaningless within or even antithetical to dominant belief systems.

The presence, then, of the term "vocation" in our title draws attention to the changing nature of the values that influence the way human society thinks about work.  Whether one labors under the stern gaze of a supervisor, passionately pursues a career close to his or her heart, or labors simply to put food on a table, our work is value-laden.

The values associated with work have clearly varied enormously from culture to culture and from historical time period to historical time period.  Work has been viewed as everything from a punishment and a burden to fulfillment and release; it has been loathed and denigrated, endured and tolerated, respected and celebrated.  The values we associate with work tap into cultural meanings at the very deepest levels, for they must link our physical lives - our need for food and shelter - with our spiritual or psychic lives - our desire for well-being and satisfaction.  Not surprisingly, many of these meanings and values derive from or find a home within religious systems.  Others, however, grow from secular, philosophical sources. And some contradict both religious and philosophical systems.

Inquiry into the values and meanings associated with work, then, lies at the heart of this grant.  Our task is to examine those meanings within the life of this campus, exploring how our intertwining views of work, ethics, and vocation do or should play out within this academic institution - devoted to multiculturalism, internationalism, and, particularly, service - and within our individual lives.

What meanings do we associate with work?  What ideas about vocation ought we bring to the world? How does service inform our work?  These are the questions the Lilly Project for Work, Ethics and Vocation addresses.