Back to the Future (Part One): The Prolepsis of Vocational Discernment

“Prolepsis” is not a commonly used term, but it is helpful when talking to students about vocation. After all, what is college if it is not an opportunity to learn new vocabulary words?

Prolepsis connotes a present and active anticipation of a future reality. Said otherwise, to live proleptically is to live in the present in a way that reflects or is oriented toward an assumed future.

The DeLorean Time Machine in “Back to the Future” (1985).

To illustrate this, I ask students to take an imaginary journey back in time in my own life. While my parents’ generation might picture such an exercise through an H.G. Wells time machine, and I see myself jumping in a DeLorean equipped with a flux capacitor (at least if I can obtain some uranium or time things well during a thunderstorm), my students often choose to imagine a time-traveling drone equipped with a GoPro that can be controlled from the comfort of home. Any apparatus will do as I invite them to visit my fifteen year-old self at home in the suburbs of Philadelphia on any evening in August or September of 1982. I then tell them what they are nearly guaranteed to see. They will see my tall, lanky frame outside dribbling and shooting a basketball in the driveway until it is too dark to do so. (The full picture of my teen-self includes pre-Jordan tight shorts, socks pulled up to the knees, a headband, and Chuck Taylors.)

Photograph of the author as a young basketball player

As I facilitate this exercise, I introduce the operative question: What was causing my behavior on those late summer nights in 1982? Of course, many causes are possible. I liked basketball. I idolized Julius Erving and was pretty sure I was headed down the same career path. I was too lanky to play football. My parents had installed a basketball hoop in the driveway. I was afraid if I stayed inside in the evenings, I would be asked to do dishes. There were other reasons as well. A primary motivating cause of my behavior, however, was something yet to happen: Tryouts for my high school team were scheduled for October, and I really wanted to be on the team. Moreover, I had been cut from the roster the previous year and wanted to be more prepared this time. In other words, my actions in the August present were oriented toward my hopes for an October future.

I did, in fact, make the team in October of 1982 even though my primary role was bench warmer. My coach, it seemed, couldn’t recognize the next “Dr. J” even when right in front of him. Nevertheless, while athletics would not become a profession as such, the experience was vocationally significant and provided wonderful opportunities to learn more about basketball, self, and team.

The imaginative exercise is, of course, merely a discussion starter. It is meant to spark thought and conversation about the various influences on our actions as humans and what frames our life trajectories and desires. After all, whatever it means to be “called,” it not only involves engagements between external and interior forces (see Cunningham’s “’Who’s There?’: The Dramatic Role of the ‘Caller’ in Vocational Discernment,” in At This Time and In This Place), it also involves temporal engagements between the past, present, and future. Ultimately, being called involves a movement toward something, toward a future, a future that is both shaped and proleptically anticipated in the present.

Much more could be said here. The ensuing discussions with students are often as fascinating as they are varied. For now, however, I simply highlight two dimensions of prolepsis that align well with vocational discourse.

First, the notion of prolepsis is compatible with various religious and non-religious perspectives and thus serves the idea of vocational discernment in multi-faith registers as explored in the forthcoming NetVUE volume, Hearing Vocation Differently. As a Christian, I find prolepsis compatible with the logic of Christian eschatology and the hermeneutical quest to recognize and respond to God’s promises as, in the words of theologian Jurgen Moltmann, an “arriving future.” But prolepsis can also align with non-theistic calls related to cosmic processes or humanistic visions and projections. To use Cunningham’s terms, prolepsis is an appropriately capacious notion for processes of vocational discernment (see “Language That Works: Vocation and the Complexity of Higher Education,” the introduction to Vocation Across the Academy).

Second, in line with all the NetVUE volumes, the notion of prolepsis is most helpful to the vocational discussion when it is imagined in open, dynamic, and communal terms. In other words, prolepsis is not merely a fancy way to talk about individual goals and self-determination. In order to be helpful to the discourse, the notion must align with healthy acknowledgements of limitation, unpredictable variables, emerging self-knowledge, communal engagement, and guiding “callers.” As my time-traveling example demonstrates, something as simple as preparing for team tryouts reflects not only personal goals and desires, but also circumstances of family, geography, genetics, unrealistic hopes, past disappointments, life lessons, and transferable skills, to name just a few. Bill Cavanaugh helpfully explores some of these themes in the first NetVUE volume (see “Actually, You Can’t Be Anything You Want (And It’s a Good Thing, Too),” in At This Time and In This Place).

In short, what I have in mind with the notion of prolepsis is a sense of calling oriented toward the future and guided by practical wisdom and communal discernment. Those emphases will set up part two of this post as I consider some of Aristotle’s contributions to the discussion.

In the meantime, and in conclusion, I like to turn my time-traveling imaginative exercise around to help students think of it in terms their own vocational processes. What if, I ask, travelers from thirty-five years in the future were to come back to our campus today? What observations would they make about our behaviors? How would they describe our friendships and community practices? What habits would they note with regard to study, diet, sleep, exercise, rest, ritual, social and online activity? What kind of future would they see arriving in our present?

As our future guests considered these questions, they would be describing the prolepsis of our vocational development.

John D. Barton is Director of the Center for Faith and Learning at Pepperdine University where he also serves on the faculties of Seaver College’s Religion and Philosophy Division and the GSEP’s graduate program in Social Entrepreneurship and Change. His areas of interest and research include African philosophy, ethics and philanthropy, and inter-religious dialogue.

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