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.

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“Appreciative Knowledge”: Another Model for Interfaith Vocational Exploration

I read Daniel Meyers’ “Interfaith Vocational Exploration: Proceed with Caution” with interest. I appreciate his recognition that the word and concept of vocation, at least as narrowly construed, comes from a particular and, at least in Western societies, privileged position. As he notes, this implies concomitant need to “proceed with caution,” because other faiths are by necessity having to “translate” and respond to Christianity’s terms, ideas, and paradigms. As a Buddhist at a Lutheran college, I have sometimes had concerns about question-and-answer periods when Buddhist speakers were called on to respond to questions about parallels (or lack thereof) to Christian concepts. I often felt that the short answer demanded in such circumstances distorted ideas about my religious tradition, or missed the main points about my faith. Like Meyers, I think the literature on interfaith dialogue can be a helpful resource in thinking and talking about interfaith vocational exploration. However, I would like to propose a different model.

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Interfaith Vocational Exploration: Proceeding with Caution

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?

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