Book notes: Book explores theology of vocation

Book notes: Book explores theology of vocation

By Sr. Judith Schaefer OP, c

ANYONE WHO HAS WORKED with young adults has heard the question, “How do I know if I am doing God’s will?” or “What is God’s plan for my life?” Awakening Vocation: A Theology of Christian Call (Liturgical Press, 2010) deals with these familiar and important questions, and explores the varied meanings of words intrinsic to these questions, such as “vocation,” “call,” “God’s will,” and “discernment.” Edward P. Hahnenberg, Associate Professor at Xavier University in Cincinnati, examines the complex meanings behind these words, provides a rich historical review of how they developed, and offers new language that sheds light on how vocation can be re-imagined.

Those working with young people in any capacity and, in particular, those working in vocation ministry within religious communities, will find this book insightful in responding to the important human question that poet Mary Oliver articulates: “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” (page xi).

Hahnenberg explores the relationship between the vocation and call with a dense and intricate historical review. Through an exploration that goes from Luther, Calvin, and Barth to Francis de Sales and Ignatius of Loyola to Miraslov Volf, Yves Congar, and Karl Rahner, Hahnenberg demonstrates how the theology of vocation has evolved in both positive and negative ways. The chapter, like much of the book, is detailed and academic and requires perseverance on the part of the reader, but the effort is well worth it. The historical and theological understanding gained about how the current multivalent meanings of vocation and call developed is invaluable in giving vocation ministers language and concepts for questions such as: What does God want me to do? What is my unique path? What is God’s plan for me?

Hahnenberg is both appreciative and critical in his historical and theological analysis of vocation. He shows how each theology struggles to “articulate a theology of vocation that affirms both nature and grace”—and how, from Hahnenberg’s perspective, each falls short. The goal of his book is to offer new language that will articulate an inductive approach to the vocation of each unique individual that augments the current objective, general, and detached approach. “What is needed is a thoroughly subjective, personal, engaged theology of vocation orienting the whole person toward the future that is God’s call” (page 46).

To begin his project, Hahnenberg explores the interior dimensions of vocation and call with a review of Ignatius of Loyola’s understanding of the primacy and pervasiveness of grace and the importance of the individual’s inner experience in discernment. He counterbalances this approach with a summary of the French theologians, Pierre de Bérulle and Jean-Jacques Olier, and their emphasis on the connection between the inner experiences of the individual with the experiences of Christ. Hahnenberg cites the inability of 17th century theology to overcome the dualistic split between nature and grace as contributing to an understanding of vocation that reduced it to a secret, and too often, silent voice.

Vatican II’s revolutionary breaking open of the universal call to holiness was significant in developing a more wholistic Catholic theology of vocation. However, Hahnenberg believes that the earlier 17th century theology of vocation still holds sway today—at times, in overly institutionalized and overly interiorized ways. He cites examples of how contemporary church documents continue to confine God’s call to a few states of life, and how a theology of supernatural grace continues to reify vocation and “turn discernment into a pseudomystical scavenger hunt” (page 90).

Part Two of Awakening Vocation focuses on three essential elements of vocation: God, the individual and others. Vocation begins with the God who calls. Hahnenberg explores the shifting response to “God’s plan” from anxiety (“What if I don’t find out what God’s plan is?”) and fear (“What if I don’t measure up?”) in earlier periods to today’s fear of meaninglessness (“Is there a plan at all?”). Young adults today face many varied options, and the question easily becomes, “What’s the point?” The contemporary question of ambiguity must be taken seriously; yet, this does not mean that the language of “call” is foreign to seekers today. It simply means the focus needs to be reframed to the God of the call, not the call itself.

The second element involved in call is the individual, the “me.” Hahnenberg credits the Protestant doctrine of vocation for raising an emphasis on the particularity of the individual Christian. As Luther argued, God calls specific persons, not a state of life. Hahnenberg explores the question of “me” through Karl Rahner’s theology of grace and his explication of the supernatural existential. Rahner’s theology, though complex in its articulation, is fundamentally the simple truth that God’s love is what makes each of us special. “The love of God does not become less a miracle by the fact that it is promised to all” (page 137).

The third and final element of vocation, the other, is perhaps Hahnenberg’s most creative contribution. He begins with a definition of discernment as “the search for resonance between a particular choice and one’s fundamental spiritual identity” (page 160). “I hear my vocation in the harmony between the path that is before me and the mystery that is me” (page 160). Hahnenberg takes post-modern consciousness seriously and acknowledges that the individual cannot be seen in isolation but rather as shaped and socialized by one’s surroundings. “Vocation is my story amidst other stories, as all of these stories unfold within the story of God” (page 161). In exploring the contemporary milieu, Hahnenberg introduces the work of Lieven Boeve on “open narrative” and applies Boeve’s insights to conversion. “The conversion called for at the present moment is the transformation that comes through an openness to the interruption of ‘the other.’ In order to hear the call of God, what we need most … is to become open. For through openness to the other, we grow more and more open to the Other, the God who calls” (page 191).

Hahnenberg concludes his book with a chapter entitled “For Others.” What is different today in our understanding of vocation is not what we know about God, and not completely what we know about ourselves or our place in the world, but rather how we name the whither to which we are being called —not out of a sinful world but into a suffering one. Where do seekers today begin? With one small step: allowing ourselves to be troubled—troubled by the suffering in the world and troubled by the way the world is running.

Edward Hahnenberg has made a significant contribution to the understanding of vocational questions today with his in-depth, scholarly, and thorough work on vocation and Christian call. The text is rich, complex and well worth reading and pondering. The power and mystery of God working in the lives of individuals deserves such a profound effort. Hahnenberg concludes with an inspiring image of how vocation can be imagined: “We are awakened. We wake up and step out into a great procession, joining a sea of unique and beautiful selves surging forward into the reign of God” (page 233). We can be confident that we will find our way by walking.

Sister Judith Schaefer, OP, is dean for University Affairs and chair of the Theology Department at Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota in Winona, MN. She previously served the Sinsinawa Dominican Congregation in formation ministry and has published a book on the vow of obedience entitled, The Evolution of a Vow: Obedience as Decision Making in Communion (LitVerlag, 2009).


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