Several years ago I found myself in the basement of a hallowed university hall serving as a chaplain’s office intern and flipping pancakes on a griddle for a study break. Students of all backgrounds were descending into the basement to hang out in the cozy space and grab some late-night pancakes in the midst of their studies. I chatted with students as they poured on the syrup or engaged in something I’ve never understood: covering their pancakes in peanut butter. (Pluralism has its limits!)
Having gone to college at a school with a program for theological education housed in the chaplain’s office, it was natural for me to ask students, “So, what’s your vocation?”
As if on cue, one of the staff members of the chaplain’s office rolled out of his office and waived the proverbial red flag: he pulled me over and shared with kindness that this was not a question we ask. Given the commitment the office has to a radical interfaith hospitality, asking students to conform their thinking to the terms and ideologies of one tradition was not appropriate. I have reflected upon this in the intervening years, and have been left wondering: Is there an authentic way to create pathways of vocational exploration for people of various faiths and secular identities without simultaneously asking them to accept a Christian construct of vocation?
In the recent Network for Vocational Undergraduate Education publication, Hearing Vocation Differently: Meaning, Purpose, and Identity in the Multi-Faith Academy, editor David Cunningham suggests in the preface that vocation has “long been recognized as stretching beyond” the narrow Christian context (xv). Even if we grant this expansion, I wonder if pursuing vocational reflection in multi-faith contexts still does not ask folks of non-Christian identities to take on the dominant culture’s concepts and framework. This text utilizes voices from various faiths who reflect on vocation within the languages, histories, and texts of their own faith traditions. The collection helps translate the concept of vocation and export it from a Christian-only understanding. Yet, translating one idea into other faith languages still does not undo the power dynamic of a dominant voice asking for others to respond to its terms, its ideas, and its paradigms.
I want to suggest that the literature on interfaith dialogue can be a helpful resource for addressing this problem. The literature often focuses not on what to discuss, but how to discuss. How do we structure a sustained, curious, yet challenging discussion with people of different convictions? What might happen if instead of asking “what are you going to do?” we asked “how are you going to do what you are going to do?” Rather than locating vocation as a career/doing question, which might have some underlying Western and “Protestant work ethic” assumptions that one’s identity is what one does, let’s locate vocation with how we carry ourselves.
As one example of how interfaith dialogue literature can serve as a resource, consider Catherine Cornille’s The Im-possibility of Interreligious Dialogue (Crossroads, 2008) as a potential model. Cornille offers five key concepts for interreligious dialogue: humility, commitment, interconnection, empathy, and hospitality. While she has written an entire book on defining these terms, allow me to offer some short framing. Humility is the notion of having “humble awareness” that one is finite and one’s understanding may be incomplete regarding the infinite (9). Commitment, in this context, is similar to having convictions. Folks engaging in interfaith dialogue ought to have a commitment to a worldview and be “willing to attest to its truth” among those who don’t share in that worldview (59). Interconnection is the goal of finding that which is held in common and exercising shared energy around the challenges and needs of the world that transcend any single community (95-96). Empathy is seeking the “proper understanding of the other” (137). The “general openness to the (possible) presence of truth” in other traditions is hospitality (177).
Rather than asking students to translate their traditions into the language of vocation, what if we asked students questions like the following:
How does a humility of faith inform how you carry yourself in professional settings (humility)?
What are you certain of and how does that inform your personal and professional commitments (commitment)?
How do you aim to find intersections and commonalities with others as you pursue a career that addresses major global challenges (interconnection)?
How does your faith identity in a multifaith world help you seek understanding of others; does that instruct how you carry yourself after college (empathy)?
What do you need to hear from a future employer that invites your full self to come on board? (hospitality – in terms of being welcomed in)
How does an openness to others, as learned in our interfaith community, prepare you for your future direction? (hospitality – in terms of welcoming others in)
These are just a few questions that use the concepts of interfaith engagement to ask “how” questions rather than “what” questions.
I certainly don’t wish to dismiss the value of the text Hearing Vocation Differently. Reading how people in a variety of traditions are thinking about vocation helpfully broadens the ideas. And further, the chapters from non-Christian voices help to create an entry point for those traditions in the vocation conversation. Yet, translation still implies one language is the source. Interfaith engagement scholarship is trying to, I hope, start from a different place. Admittedly Catherine Cornille wrote her book from a Christian theologian’s perspective. So even my own example is flawed in its starting point. Nevertheless, her goal is focused on creating a model that offers a balance of shared power in dynamic diverse relationships. Inviting students to use those concepts encourages vocational conversation without requiring a buy-in to one tradition’s premises.
Interfaith dialogue is a process that, when working well, invites individuals into a sustained, curious, challenging set of conversations. In that way, they offer a great set of tools for inviting students to be in conversation with themselves around their own vocations. Welcoming students from across the landscape of faith traditions to ask questions about how they will carry themselves authentically from one context to the next in a life-long conversation sounds like a perfect approach to the wider goals of vocational reflection.
Transporting back into the pancake study break, I do not believe for a second that had I asked the student “as you imagine your future, how does your faith inform what seems clear (commitment) and what seems unknown (humility)?” that it would have led to a deep conversation! Sometimes pancakes have to be just pancakes. Especially if peanut butter is involved and we’ve run out of drinks. Nevertheless, by using the interfaith engagement literature in the right setting as a model of asking not “what” questions but “how” questions, we can invite students to imagine the ways they can pursue meaningful lives that are authentic to their faith and secular commitments. Moreover, we can provide a set of tools for starting what will perhaps emerge as a long-term dialogue on how to carry oneself into futures unknown.
Daniel Meyers is the Director of the Center for Faith and Vocation at Butler University. He was ordained in the United Church of Christ and has served in his current role at Butler since 2015. With a team of colleagues and students, Daniel provides support to religious life communities on campus, promotes vocational reflection within and beyond the curriculum, furthers interfaith engagement on campus, supports faculty and staff in their vocational and professional development, and serves as part of the campus wellness resources.