Creative Agency: A Lutheran’s Perspective

 Philipp Otto Runge’s Color Sphere (Die Farbenkugel), 1810. Wikimedia. Public domain.

Teaching vocation requires the instructor to strike a balance between making too much or too little of vocation. A good balance works out differently for instructing first-year students than it does for instructing seniors, and it likely works out differently for undecided students in a liberal arts college than it does for majors in pre-professional programs in a comprehensive university.

In my experience having also taught vocation concepts outside the academy, a priority for vocational discernment and reflection seems dependent on the audience’s affinity or urgency for conceptual frameworks. I generally have a more difficult time getting people who work in “fast time” vocations—action-, labor-, and task-oriented—to be energized by vocation concepts than those people who work in “slow time” vocations—thought-, relationship-, and process-oriented. I can only imagine the reactions I’d experience teaching vocation to people who are insecure about the things I take for granted; I speak from a point of privilege and to people who enjoy degrees of privilege.

What got me thinking about how much to make of vocation was an essay by Danish professor Anders Michelsen, in a book for Olafur Eliasson’s exhibition, Your Color Memory. Michelsen’s essay is titled “Color and Self-Creation,” and it uses color systems to explore creative agency and cultural contingency. A phrase repeated in the essay is, “We create systems that create us.” This claim, confined to the domain of color, is elaborated by a historical overview of color theory that concludes with, “We organize our colored world around systems that are increasingly of our own making . . . by adaption, exclusion, interpretation, and creation.”

Against what prevails in culture as a hesitancy about color, Michelsen argues for the positive value of self-creation systems and for their creative agency. Color grants humans the field for deciding, reflecting upon, and setting color systems; color systems are modes of human imagination. If readers are interested in how this framework leads to a “politics of creation,” you may want to become familiar with David Batchelor’s Chromophobia, 2001. {For an excerpt, click here}.

Michelsen’s essay takes me in a different direction, however. How does the idea of self-creation systems apply specifically to teaching vocation concepts?

WE ORGANIZE OUR COLORED WORLD AROUND SYSTEMS THAT ARE INCREASINGLY OF OUR OWN MAKING . . . BY ADAPTION, EXCLUSION, INTERPRETATION, AND CREATION.

Anders Michelsen, “Color and Self-Creation,” Olafur Eliasson: Your Colour Memory (2004).

For example, it’s possible that the way we teach discernment might be limited by the system we have developed to teach it. For example, we might enjoy the illusion that the way we teach vocation is authentic or natural and not culturally contingent, when in fact our teaching is tangled up in unspoken assumptions. Can I understand the way I teach vocation as becoming a “system”? To what degree does my system “create us”? And (my primary consideration), to what degree is it appropriate for vocation systems to exercise creative agency? It seems to me that Michelsen is in favor of exploring systems metacognitively, to uncover what recurrences might be different, new, and problematic. Is such an experimental approach appropriate to teaching vocation?

Let me be clear: I can begin to imperfectly answer the questions posed above for myself. I can’t answer them for you.

Wisconsin Lutheran College

I am a fine arts faculty member at a small, Lutheran liberal arts college. I also serve in an appointment to be the college’s dean of academic advising, and I oversee the first-semester-experiences course, which includes an introduction to vocation concepts. Theologically, my formation and development of vocation concepts and applications are obligated to Scripture and to the Lutheran Confessions.

My conceptual framework for vocation is largely inherited from Christian thinkers, ancient and modern, and from contemporary Lutheran academics. I trust the relative stability and reliability of orthodox Lutheran theology, which has never placed a priority on self-creation apart from God-given identity. Because I do not feel externally pressured to be original in my thinking about the framework, and because I understand my instructional role as a reporter, I aim for clarity and precision. Instead of being novel, and saying too much, about the framework, I keep revisiting the traditional, at risk of saying too little. But I must admit (having been enlightened by Michelsen’s essay) that every system has aspects of self-creation, and I must be honest about having blind spots for my tradition’s systemic assumptions.

My way of teaching vocation is influenced by consideration of student and peer reception, by observance of conceptual and practical restraints, by instructional requirements for codification, and by personal experience and narrative arc; there is no way for me to practice my way without it becoming systematized. Every summer when I review notes and outlines and handouts and bulleted points, I ought to be confronted by the fact that my teaching keeps becoming a system. And I should think more about this system’s recursive output.

Does my now-acknowledged “system” help students create themselves? Of course, it does. As anxious as I am with the acknowledgment, my system has benefits and costs. My hope is that all students benefit from seeing themselves as created and called by God to use their individualized gifts to serve their neighbors—real people in the present and in proximity to them. My hope is they all benefit from understanding their callings as having an ontological relation with Christian academics and Christian community. My hope is they all benefit from understanding their proper place in the secular world, not removed or isolated from the earthly kingdom.

The costs associated with any system include its gloss and reduction. Systems encourage us to think (if we think at all beyond the buzz) of content as being fast and superficial. It’s convenient in my own teaching to trot out the proof passages and the visual diagrams and the perfect examples and call it a day. My system—no matter how much I am focused on its truth—is prone to the costs associated with impulse and bias: specifically, those related to American materialism and to spiritual piety, both of which place unwarranted value on self-actualization. I work very hard to remind students that all majors help other people and that vocation is not measured by tangible achievements, but I wonder if my own instruction can work against itself.

Finally, how appropriate to my situation is it that I teach vocation in a way that encourages students to exercise creative agency? That’s answered for me by reflecting on how Lutheran doctrine settles on the dynamic and ambiguous nature of a person’s calling. That’s answered for me by knowing that the doctrine, while it speaks universally to all people, is meant for each person, and that each person exercises agency insofar as they are aware, or not, of their personality and gifts, their limitations, their opportunities, and their communities. Creative agency is a gray area, conceptually and operationally, and the value of creative agency depends on how it is framed.


Paul Burmeister is Professor of Art at Wisconsin Lutheran College, where he is also Assistant Dean of Advising. He was a member of the 2019 cohort of NetVUE’s Teaching Vocational Exploration seminar. For other posts by Paul, click here.

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