Do Only Religious People Have a ‘Calling’?

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Posted on January 26th, 2011 | Filed under Challenges, Community, Featured, Interfaith, Intra-Faith, Leadership, Learning, Philosophy, Social Issues
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This post originally appeared on the Huffington Post Religion.

In a recent interview with BBC Radio 4, musician Jack White (of the White Stripes and other bands) reflected on his "calling."

"I was thinking at 14 that possibly I might have had the calling to be a priest," said White. "Blues singers sort of have the same feelings as someone who's called to be a priest might have."

That he connected his sense of a calling to a career in ministry isn't surprising. The word "calling," or "vocation," has explicitly religious roots; derived from the Latin vocare, or "to call," the terms originated in the Catholic Church as a way of referring to the inclination for a religious life as a priest, monk, or nun. During the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther broadened the term beyond ministry to include work that serves others, but still couched it in a religious framework.

Today, "calling" has become common currency in the American parlance, its meaning expanded to refer to the realization of an individual's passion or drive. Though the term has long had religious associations, it is used just as often to refer to secular work as it is religious.

Still, there's something more to a calling -- something almost otherworldly. When you hear the word, what do you think of? It's usually something that defines a life, something all-consuming, something special. Few people who work in customer service, for example, would describe their work as a calling -- thinking back on my years of hunching over a humid sink and mopping greasy floors while working as a dishwasher, I sure wouldn't, anyway.

So, in my mind, a calling is more than a job; it's something that matters to you, drives you, inspires you. It's what gets you out of bed in the morning. Often, it's a hybrid of the personal and the professional -- work you bring your full self to, work that blurs the lines, work you can't "clock out" of. Almost always, a calling is something you can't not do. And while the term may have religious roots, there are certainly many atheists -- myself included -- who feel this way about their work.

Recently, I was asked by What's Your Calling? to describe my calling. What's Your Calling? is a campaign that grew out of a PBS documentary film called The Calling, which followed seven young people as they embarked on a career in religious ministry. What's Your Calling? functions as a web series that explores both secular and religious notions of calling. So far, they've interviewed incredible people from all over, from the founder of FunnyOrDie.com to a renowned slam poet, the creator of homeless advocacy projectinvisiblepeople.tv to the people behind SoulPancake.

When asked by What's Your Calling? to explain my calling, I told a story.

I described my conversion to evangelical Christianity at eleven years old and how, later, I became disillusioned with the church after years of wrestling with my sexual orientation and the claims of that faith community. Angry at religion, I didn't want anything to do with religious people. But in college, while doing my weekly volunteer shift with the Campus Kitchens Project, I was forced to challenge my universal aversion to religion and religious people.

Now, I firmly believe that my calling is to help bridge the divide between the religious and the nonreligious -- to encourage people of all different walks of life to come together and share their stories with one another, so that they may come to understand one another better. I'm writing a book on my experiences with religion, with the hope that it may serve as an invitation for others to share their stories, too.

Back when I was a Christian, I thought for a time that I was called by God into ministry. When reflecting on my calling, one of my favorite quotes was by a theologian named Frederick Buechner. He said: "The place God calls you to is where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet." It was a beautiful framework for vocation, but once I stopped believing in God, I didn't know how I fit into it.

Now, it's clear. A calling blossoms when you see a need in the world that aligns with your passions, and you dive into addressing it head first. This can happen whether you're an artist or a social worker, whether you're young or old, and whether you believe in God or not.

Today, I feel called by community, called by my Humanist values, called by my passion for hearing people share their stories, and called by the profound gap I see between the religious and the nonreligious to work to build up positive communities for the nonreligious, to give back to those in need, and to bridge the religious-secular divide. I may not believe in God, but this work is my calling.

Whether you're an atheist, religious, or somewhere in between: What's your calling?

Image credit: jakesaunders.net

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11 Responses to “Do Only Religious People Have a ‘Calling’?”

  1. Ben DeVan says:

    Good stuff, Chris.

    I’m reminded of a quote from Stephen King’s The Stand, it’s in the movie version but I can’t remember if it’s in the book. Three characters are dialoguing about God’s call, and “Mother Abigail” the Christian, says (I think) that God is calling Nick (an agnostic) to do something. A third character translates sign language or lip reading from Nick, who is mute, that Nick doesn’t believe in God. Mother Abigail says something like, “That don’t matter, God believes in you!”

    I could be wrong, but perhaps there are some parallels or common points here with the question of how Christians and others can recognize God “calling” and atheists / humanists to certain tasks / modes of being?

    A little sleepily,

    Ben

  2. Honna Eichler says:

    Oh, this is great Chris. I now realize my own answer will need to appear in blog length form. Thanks!

  3. James Croft says:

    Two things – first, there’s a rather delicious book about “callings” by Sir Ken Robinson – it’s called “The Elements”, and it’s a delightful read. Second, how does one actually GET a calling! I really do want one but I haven’t quite found it yet…

  4. Honna Eichler says:

    James, in seminary I spent a lot of time thinking about what a “calling” meant. I think I liked the definition provided by Chris: “a calling is something you can’t not do.” Thinking about it that way made me realize there are a few things I feel compelled to do, or one might say “called” to do. In my work, I often tell people everyone has been called to do something – and usually I don’t mean this in a purely religious sense.

  5. Very nice post, Chris. But, I do wonder about the term ‘calling’ since it implies a caller. Who is is that is calling you “to help bridge the divide between the religious and the nonreligious — to encourage people of all different walks of life to come together and share their stories with one another, so that they may come to understand one another better”? Is the caller the community? Is the caller your conscience? Does this religious God-as-caller-language really translate?

    Is what we’re naming a “calling” really about fitting? Contributing? Participating? Belonging?

  6. Allana Taylor says:

    Chris, you have so wonderfully articulated the way I feel doing this work. Thanks for writing this.

    @Paul, I think ‘calling’ translates between religious and non-religious for one simple reason – the call comes from within as well as from without.
    Even if one feels called by God, it’s still an internal calling; for instance God is not likely to call someone to do work that he or she is not qualified for or passionate about. This isn’t to say that religious people don’t feel tugged on by an outside force, but only that I think there is a significant degree of pull from within oneself.
    That said, as a non-religious person who feels called to some extent (and I cannot speak for Chris, only for myself) I can say that not only do I feel the internal pull, but as Chris so eloquently put it, “A calling blossoms when you see a need in the world that aligns with your passions, and you dive into addressing it head first.” So there is a degree to which even a non-religious person is called by forces beyond his or her control – I am called by need, called by my fellow humanity and called by my feeling of responsibility. Like my religious compadres I am am called externally and internally.

  7. @Honna – Can’t wait to read it!
    @James – Thanks! I’ll add that to my ever-growing reading list. :)
    @Ben – A worthwhile question. I can honestly say that it does not offend me to think that a religious person might see the work I’m doing as fitting into a religious framework that (they believe) I’m ignorant of. It’s a conversation worth having, though, and I hope we will continue to explore it here on SoF.
    @Paul – As with my comment to Ben, I think the questions you raise are definitely worth considering. Language is imperfect and ever-evolving, but you’re right that some appropriation doesn’t always work. Still, I do feel that there’s a lot to play with in terms of “calling” and “vocation,” which is why I’m not willing to simply cast it aside as being “too religious” for me to employ.

  8. @Allana — We posted at the exact same moment. Hilarious! Anyway, thank you for your thoughtful input here re: how we nonreligious are “called.” You articulated it so marvelously that I wish I had written it myself!

  9. Allana Taylor says:

    @Chris, How funny! And thank you, you’re too kind. We really should collaborate someday, it’d be a lot of fun. I look forward to seeing you here in Chicago and hearing you speak! Have a great Thursday!

  10. Hi Chris,

    I appreciate your careful and rich rendering of this important topic. I feel that in general in the Christian community people are entirely too flippant about this issue, which you have clearly struggled with in depth. Many Christians take for granted (as Allana put so well) that a vocation is ‘given’ to them by God. This language of gift, strangely enough, often turns in practice into an entitled understanding of what is it we are to do and how we should be recognized for it (I mean we are called by God after all). In turn, this generates many pastors, or others in various vocations, who turn their calling into an oppressive means of dictating what is best for others. In my understanding ‘a call’ is a burden, but a burden that you (if it is your call) should be able to bear lightly, and through this process actually live and cause flourishing in the world. I would disagree with you somewhat in that I believe a call can be a nine-to-five job, and even manifest itself in dish-washing (obviously not your call :) ) Now as to who give you that call, who gives you that burden… in some ways it almost doesn’t matter what you believe… just as long as you answer it.

    Peace,
    Kelly

  11. [...] response to Chris Stedman’s thoughtful article where he claimed “…a call is something you can’t not do” and concluded by asking, “What [...]

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Chris Stedman is the former Managing Director of State of Formation at the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue. He is also the Interfaith and Community Service Fellow for the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard, a columnist for the Huffington Post and Washington Post On Faith, and is currently writing a book on religious-nonreligious engagement.


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