Richard T. Hughes on grace and the paradoxes of vocation

Richard T. Hughes

In the latest episode of NetVUE’s podcast series, Callings, we talk with Richard Hughes about his long career as a scholar and teacher. Richard has a new book out, a “memoir of sorts,” which chronicles both his own vocational story and the trajectory of his work on Christianity in the U.S. In our conversation, Richard graciously shares significant moments of rejection and criticism in his life and how these made him reconsider his most deeply held beliefs. He reflects on the influence of Victor Frankl, Robert Bellah, James Noel, and Martin Marty on his life and work, and encourages listeners to consider the paradox of how “losing one’s self” can be a gift.

Entitled The Grace of Troublesome Questions and published by Abilene Christian University Press, some of the material in Richard’s new book first appeared on this blog. In Finding vocation in loss, suffering, and death he offers three stories—from Chaim Potok’s The Chosen, Viktor Frankl, and his own life—exemplifying a paradox about meaning and death. Richard writes, “We ask about the meaning of life because the fact of death makes our lives seem so absurd.” In this second post, Richard returns to his youth, when grace appeared in the form of deeply troubling questions about the church in which he was raised, the Church of Christ. (If you missed this post, you will want to read it now, not only for its clear-eyed retrospection but also for the photos of a young Richard Hughes found through the wonders of the internet!).

In Called by a book, Richard recalls how an early mentor put a book in his hands that changed his life. Franklin H. Littell’s The Anabaptist View of the Church forced him to confront those troubling questions.

It forced me to ask serious questions about the restoration vision. What, after all, should be restored? And that question led to another—what sort of issues stood at the heart of the Christian religion? 

Richard T. Hughes

In Grace, vocation, and leaving the school that I loved, Richard relays how, in the months following September 11, 2001, he grew uncomfortable with a kind of American patriotism masquerading as Christian faith. “And that’s when I knew that my own sense of vocation now stood hopelessly at odds with the vocation of the institution that employed me,” Richard writes. After twenty-four years at Pepperdine University, “this Eden on the Pacific,” he and his wife Jan moved to Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania.

For the development in Richard Hughes’ thinking about founding myths in American culture, see the post “Wrestling with white supremacy.”

The podcast can be accessed at the link below and through Spotify, Google Podcasts, Apple Podcasts, and other podcast platforms. We invite you to listen to this and other episodes of the NetVUE podcast, and ask you to share them with your friends and colleagues.

The episode that features Richard Hughes is entitled “Troublesome questions.”

Click here to listen to the full episode of our conversation with Richard T. Hughes.


Hannah Schell was a professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religion at Monmouth College in Illinois from 2001-2018. She is the author of “Commitment and Community: The Virtue of Loyalty and Vocational Discernment” in At this Time and In This Place: Vocation and Higher Education, ed. David S. Cunningham (Oxford University Press, 2015), and, more recently, “Loyalty in the Time of Catastrophe: Anthropocene Reflections” (co-written with Mark Larrimore). Currently the Online Community Coordinator and the editor of this blog, she is also a campus consultant for NetVUE. Click here to see other blog posts by Hannah.

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