The Vocation of a Christian Historian: Calling and Callings

I’m up for promotion this year, and so had to write a lengthy faith-learning integration essay describing how I “[bring] the perspective of a Christian worldview to bear on scholarship and teaching” and reflecting an “increasing maturity in one’s discipline and faith….” I don’t intend to publish the entire (thirty-page) thing here, but I did think I might pull out some extracts to cue discussion on a few questions…

Frederick Buechner
Frederick Buechner – Buechner Institute, King College

I called the essay “Finding Gladness and Need in the Study of the Past: The Vocation of the Christian Historian.” Frequent readers may already recognize the titular themes of gladness and need as being the two “voices” to which Frederick Buechner encourages us to pay heed as we seek to hear God’s call on our lives: I’ve blogged about Buechner on vocation before. And the subtitle is directly ripped off from Tracy McKenzie’s presidential address at last October’s meeting of the Conference on Faith and History, also blogged about previously. That speech and some of the writings of recent American Historical Association president William Cronon (e.g., an AHA newsletter column on teaching) helped enormously to coalesce my own changing thoughts about the vocation of the historian, and how it might look quite different from the profession of the historian as it’s been defined since the late 19th century — with an increasing emphasis on narrowly focused research intended for a scholarly audience.

I’ve already touched on some of the themes from the body of the essay I wrote, and will come back to them as this series takes shape. But I wanted to start with the “Coda” that I couldn’t help but tack on at the end of an already too long essay…

I first noted that whatever our particular calling as historians, we should not confuse it with the call of Christ: to love God and to love our neighbors. (Also, to follow him — the Great Invitation — and to go out and make disciples — the Great Commission, but I think they’re all of a piece, and all both transcend and affect the more specific calling of historian.) I found Os Guinness somewhat helpful here, as he distinguished between the primary calling of Christ (“by him, to him, and for him”) and our secondary calling (“everyone, everywhere, and in everything should think, speak, live, and act entirely for him,” as we are called personally in various contexts). He summed up, “Secondary callings matter, but only because the primary calling matters most” (Guinness, The Call, p. 31).

Indeed, I wrote,

Guiness, The Callprecisely because I find the callings to seek truth in the past and to teach historical thinking so compelling, I need to beware of what Guinness (somewhat tendentiously) calls the “Protestant distortion” of vocation: “It severs the secular from the spiritual altogether and reduces vocation to an alternative word for work…. Do we enjoy our work, virtually worship our work so that our devotion to Jesus is off-center? Do we put our emphasis on service, or usefulness, or being productive in working for God — at his expense? Do we strive to prove our own significance? To make a difference in the world? To carve our names in marble on the monuments of time?” (pp. 39-40, 42-43)

It would be all too easy take the voices of gladness and need, and rather than listen to them as voices that call me to God, to instead make of them idols. I continued in the essay:

That’s all the more true if such a “Protestant distortion” leads us to forget a Protestant insight: that none of us has but one secondary calling. The Lutheran theologian Kathryn Kleinhans has observed that Martin Luther, in rescuing the language of “calling” from the monopoly of late medieval monasticism, affirmed “the plurality of callings in the individual’s life. The arenas of worldly activity identified by Luther are not mutually exclusive: one can be a parent, an employer or an employee, a citizen, and a member of the Christian community simultaneously” (Kleinhans, “The Work of a Christian: Vocation in Lutheran Perspective,” Word & World, vol. 25, Fall 2005, p. 399). It is probably obvious how gratifying one’s own gladness can lead to problems here [Kleinhans thinks that “Buechner’s language is easily romanticized and thus trivialized in an age that focuses as heavily as ours on personal fulfillment”], but the category of need is also susceptible to distortion. I can take my call to teach students so seriously that I neglect my callings to serve the needs of others, such as my family.

Noll, Jesus Christ and the Life of the MindHere I drew heavily on my former colleague Jenell Paris’ review of Mark Noll’s Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind, in which she acknowledged that “In American higher education, for scholars of any religion or none, the life of the mind is often at odds with the life of a family.” Her response — and I tend to think it’s on target — is not for evangelicals to focus so heavily on cultivating a more robust life of the mind, but to accept that our “evangelical background offers no loopholes for escaping the responsibilities, and the joys, of family” and to “continue to worship and serve through our churches, provide hands-on care to our loved ones, and do good works in the world. From the vantage point of the modern academic prestige structure, this may not look like an exemplary life of the mind, but it may be one way to enjoy ‘the life that truly is life’ (1 Tim. 6:19).”

On the one hand, the academic life offers a kind of pace and flexibility that seems to make it more accommodating to balancing work and family: I’ve been able to spend much more time with my children in their earliest years than my physician father was able to spend with me in mine. But teaching and writing about history is so deeply fulfilling on so many levels that it can sometimes threatens to consume my time and attention, and leave me either neglecting the responsibilities (and joys) of husband and father, or performing them in resentment of how they intrude on the lecture, article, or blog post I’m eager to write.

How do you identify and balance callings?

Read the next entry in this series>>

4 thoughts on “The Vocation of a Christian Historian: Calling and Callings

  1. Chris,
    This probably deserves its own email, but I very much appreciate your thoughts here. I daily pray that I can fulfill my multiple callings. You remind me that I should also pray that I do so in proper balance.

  2. Reblogged this on whammyville and commented:
    And you thought Os Guinness’ “The Call” was the most pointless book ever written? Think again dear inhabitants of Whammyville- Here’s a fantastic blog post on following and balancing your call- this one is specifically from the aspect of a historian. Read on…

  3. Not being an academician, my thoughts run on a much simpler plane. However, I do know this kind of balance is not achieved and then somehow automatic thereafter. It takes conscious effort to maintain.

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