One of the challenges of discerning one’s life vocation is determining which voice or voices should dominate the conversation. For some a calling is a response to an inner voice, a gut-level feeling that ‘just feels right.’ For others a calling is discerned by those in your life who know you best, who assess your gifts, abilities and passions and work with you on focusing your life’s direction. These two paradigms are never more clearly demarcated than in the areas of religion and art when a personal passion is stonewalled by lack of external support or encouragement, putting the internal and external voices in opposition. This is more than just a philosophical difference about life decisions, this is an existential crisis facing young people—and sometimes not so young people—every day.
One model of understanding vocational discernment that I believe holds the inner and outer, objective and subjective in a healthy and helpful tension is the work of ethicist John Haughey. Haughey roots his perspectives on calling in the works of theologian Bernard Lonergan, and through them concludes that discerning one’s vocation requires three conversions. The first is an intellectual conversion. This conversion requires that an individual discerns the truths of the world around them and then adjusts their perspective on the world accordingly. It is literally a reality check. The second is a moral conversion. Here the meaning of one’s understanding of reality is discerned with the assistance of one’s community. And by community Haughey means that cluster of people who speak most directly and helpfully into your life, such as a faith community. The last conversion is an affective conversion, where one responds to the moral issues discerned in conversation with one’s community with an attitude of love. An example of this sort of conversion trifecta might be a parent who hears a commencement address at a child’s graduation about the decline in education funding in public schools and the need for volunteers in schools. This person, now with a revised understanding of a reality in their world, raises the possibility of getting more involved in the public schools as a volunteer with both family and their church community. After receiving affirmation from that person’s community, this person begins a life-long commitment to resourcing their local schools, their teachers, and students. Discerning one’s calling, according to Haughey, is a multi-staged process.
What I see as so helpful is that Haughey assumes both an inner conviction arising from a revision of one’s opinion of the world and one’s role in it, along with an external, objective conversation with others who see both the individual and the world from a different perspective and can reinforce and challenge them as necessary. Yet in the end, Haughey from an ethical perspective, looks at the process of discernment as one in which the individual finds fulfillment in their role in society and its contribution to the greater good. This is ultimately not an exercise in self-sacrifice and altruism. Instead it assumes that God has created us for community and we are most ourselves when we exercise our gifts and talents in, through and for community, contributing to the greater good.
For artists, even artists of faith, this moral or ethical dimension may seem a bit forced. However, if one senses a passion about art and their involvement with it in whatever way, and corroborating gifts and passions are discerned by an invested community of friends and colleagues, then their contribution should and can be a benefit to the larger world. It simply identifies that art—its potential for inviting us to see the world and ourselves in new ways—is a contribution to the world at large, not simply an exercise in self-expression. In fact artists may be one of the major contributing factors to intellectual conversion, which may frequently begin as an affective response to a work or works of art. Even those who are passionate about service to those of the least adequate means would acknowledge that those on the margins of our society and its economy benefit from art and beauty.
What I learned through Haughey’s work is the challenge of making decisions well, especially fork in the road decisions that can lead a person in two very different directions with very different outcomes. It requires an ability to take a personal inventory of one’s passions, abilities and skills as it responds to one’s evolving view of the world. At the same time, it assumes that one lives not in isolation but in community, a community who values not only the individual’s passions but the needs of the community, and how an individual can find personal fulfillment and make positive contribution to the world. These types of question are asked repeatedly throughout one’s life, honing one’s direction and evaluating life’s opportunities and choices.
In the end it is a process in which a vision of mutual confirmation is identified, where the external and internal speak in harmony. As James Joyce wrote, “His heart trembled in an ecstacy of fear and his soul was in flight….This was the call of life to his soul, not the dull gross voice of the world of duties and despair.” Discovering this voice is not always easy, but it is always worth the effort. Otherwise we have silenced the contribution we can joyfully offer to our world, our God and even ourself.
Todd E. Johnson is the William K. and Delores S. Brehm Associate Professor of Worship, Theology, and the Arts. He also serves as the Theological Director for the Brehm Center. Todd is the coauthor of Living Worship: A Multimedia Resource for Students and Leaders (2010), coeditor of Common Worship in Theological Education (2010), the editor of The Conviction of Things Not Seen: Worship and Ministry in the 21st Century (2002), and coauthor of Performing the Sacred: Theology and Theatre in Dialogue (2009).