Vocation Revisited, Part 3: Interfaith Engagement and Relationships

A conversation facilitated by Anita Houck with Professor Stacy Davis (Religious Studies and Gender and Women’s Studies, Saint Mary’s) and two graduates, Romona Bethany, now Group Violence Intervention Program Manager for The City of South Bend, and Sophia Funari, currently a student in the M.Div. program at the University of Notre Dame. For Part I of their conversation, click here, and for Part II, click here.

Can “vocation” work in interfaith contexts, or does it just sound too Christian?

Stacy Davis: Vocation suggests a path in life that God has called one to take. I think such language can be problematic for religious and non-religious people. For those who are religious, I think it can create a great deal of anxiety. What if I don’t know what that path is? What if I pick the wrong one? For non-religious people, the language may be too religious to be useful. With growing numbers of young adults having no religious affiliation, the term itself may not make sense to them, even if the idea of living a meaningful life does. This is not to say that students cannot and should not learn from multiple religious perspectives, but for non-religious students, I’m not sure “vocation” can ever work as a completely secular term… Young people want their lives to have meaning, and I agree with you that meaning should not be limited to how you make money. I just think that the word “vocation” carries some baggage that may take too long to unpack at this point.

I also have a concern about whether the classroom is the space to talk about purpose in life or vocation, and it’s related both to my own personal introversion and my teaching style. To be clear, I am not a neutral teacher, particularly when teaching the Bible. I want students to recognize the anti-Judaism of Christian traditions and fight against it. That is a purpose if there ever was one. But I do so with an almost obsessive focus on text and tradition and leave it to students to figure out what to do with that information. Precisely because I am an African American feminist scholar, in an environment where my students may not fit into either category, my definition of purpose may be different from theirs. Concentrating on text allows my students to focus without feeling like their beliefs or ideas are inevitably under attack.

Although it’s not the easiest space to inhabit, when students ask me how they can reconcile the God of the prophets with the God they learned about in Sunday school, that’s a meaning question. Some students fear that what they are learning will make religious life hard for them. What I try to tell them (with varying degrees of success) is that precisely because the Bible has a particular context that need not be their own, it’s perfectly OK to question Scripture and still be faithful if you choose. Just because religious spaces have been biased does not mean they have to continue to be that way. Agency outcomes in college curricula (like our outcomes in Gender and Women’s Studies that “students will recognize the necessity of informed feminist advocacy for transformative change; discern when and how to act as an ally on issues regarding women, gender identities, and sexualities; and work to resist oppression with regard to issues of gender, race, class, sexuality, ability, and ethnicity,”) are great things, because they argue that students can choose what to do with the information they learn.

My graduate school mentor told me that students will know what you are afraid of by what you will not say. I try to be as fearless in the classroom as I can, so that students will be less afraid themselves. It’s definitely who I strive to be.

Students will know what you are afraid of by what you will not say. I try to be as fearless in the classroom as I can, so that students will be less afraid themselves.

Professor Stacy Davis

Romona Bethany: I don’t think we can help the context of a word that’s religious, like vocation. It is what it is; it will always carry the mindset of Christian terminology about what you’re going to do about your life. It will always sound Christian; that’s the history of the word. But that doesn’t have to be negative, and the word doesn’t have to stay where it was. It doesn’t have to be limited to Christianity alone. Other religions’ terms are also acceptable; it may just take time and discomfort to learn to use them. But “vocation” can prompt people to think with their own backgrounds and cultural context. It’s not the stamp; it’s the inroad to conversation.

Sophie Funari: I don’t think the term is too Christian to be used in interfaith contexts. It says that what we do in this world ultimately matters in a transcendent way. For me as a Christian, that means that my deep hungers were provided by a God who created me and left a stamp on my heart that appears to me in my vocation. At the same time, bringing words from other traditions into the conversation expands the conversation in helpful ways. I get concerned with Christians bringing in terms from other religions; that can result in watering down or misappropriation. But if someone brings in a term having been formed in that faith, that’s different from getting a history lesson on a word from someone who’s not part of that tradition. So our conversations have to bring in people who know those terms from the inside.

Romona Bethany: Yes, it’s the “who” behind the “what” that drives through the message. You have to give specific space for those voices you want to hear. When you invite someone into your classroom, you yield your position and give that person the floor. That is the utopia of diversity: yielding that power to control.

Sophie Funari: The depth of language comes from the meaning behind it, not just the use of the individual word, so when someone is actually present and you can discuss what it means to them, that allows exploration of its meaning. We started an interfaith club, and I maintain that I learned the most from talking to one of our founders, Imán, about her Muslim faith. It was beautiful because we actually had an established friendship where we could ask questions and explore how these words informed how we interacted with the world. That expanded our growth and understanding in a way that a vocab list couldn’t.

In my experience (as always, please feel encouraged to disagree!), discussions of vocation in college tend to focus on things like major and career; singleness, marriage, and relationships in general don’t get much attention. Do you agree? If so, whatever terms we use, and wherever it happens, should good vocational education address singleness more explicitly?

Stacy Davis: Yes and yes! As more people wait longer to become partnered (or choose not to become partnered at all), the language of vocation has not kept pace, particularly for women in any type of religious setting. The model has been either you are single and waiting to be married or you are married to God, Jesus, or whomever. That is unnecessarily limiting. While statistically most women will be partnered at some point, my fear has always been that if we encourage that partnership as a necessary goal of life, women may make poor choices or not live their fullest lives while not partnered. Full disclosure: I wrote an essay on this back in 2015 for Womanist Interpretations of the Bible, so I’m definitely biased.

Romona Bethany: These conversations can easily slide into conversations about security. At different points in my education, I’ve been in conversations about who will you get married to and how many kids will you have, while at the same time, we want to be sure we’re in charge and CEO. It clashes, and it’s a history lesson too: why were those things valued? What was the economy like? My relationship dynamic was part of my vocation. Does one [marriage and family, or career] have to be more a priority than the other, or do they interweave? This conversation challenges who we are. If I’m a feminist, is that challenged because I love my husband and enjoy serving him? I love to go against the grain. Take the label off: yes, I can be a feminist and adore my husband, because he sees me as equal and showers me, too. It’s important we have the conversation, not the answers.

For more posts about vocation and interfaith engagement, see “Appreciative Knowledge: Another Model for Interfaith Vocational Exploration” by Florence Amamoto and “Interfaith Vocational Exploration: Proceeding with Caution” by Daniel Meyers. “For Young Women Who Have Considered Their Becoming,” written by Caryn Riswold about Michelle Obama, touches on the connection between marriage and vocation.


A former high-school teacher and parish lay minister, Anita Houck is Professor of Religious Studies and Theology and Joyce McMahon Hank Aquinas Chair in Catholic Theology at Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Indiana. She co-founded Saint Mary’s long-running program in vocation, Real Life Calling, and participated in the 2018-2019 NetVUE faculty workshop. Her research explores religion and humor, vocation and single life, and pedagogy. She teaches comparative theology, spirituality and comedy, and interfaith studies, and has received the College Theology Society’s Monika Hellwig Award for Teaching Excellence. For other posts by Anita, click here.

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