The Vocation of a Christian Historian: Profession vs. Calling

How do historians define what it is that they do? Is it a profession? A vocation? Both?

As I mentioned last week, as part of Bethel’s faculty promotion process I recently wrote a lengthy essay on the meaning of vocation for a Christian historian like myself. In my first post stemming from that essay, I started at its conclusion, which sought to step back from the preceding pages’ emphasis on how historians particularly conceive of their calling and emphasize both that we have a primary calling that trumps all secondary ones, and that those more particular callings must be balanced.

Hughes, The Vocation of the Christian ScholarToday I’ll go back to the beginning of the essay, in which I framed the rest of the discussion by observing a tension between vocational and professional understandings of what it is that historians do. (Nothing much original to this observation; to cite but one source on which I drew heavily, vocation vs. profession shows up repeatedly in John Fea et al., eds., Confessing History: Explorations in Christian Faith and the Historian’s Vocation — I wrote a couple of posts about it last April.) I made my preference for the language of vocation evident right off the bat in the essay, arguing that our identity in Christ means that Christian scholars can say Yes to Richard Hughes’ “question of vocation” (“…do we have an identity that stands at the core of our being, an identity that informs every other aspect of our lives and around which every other aspect of our lives can be integrated? — The Vocation of a Christian Scholar, p. xvii). And so

we can trust that our work is not simply a commodity in a transaction, but labor given us by God to be done to His glory and for our neighbor’s good. If we remain faithful to this divine calling, John Calvin advised, “Every one in his particular mode of life will, without repining, suffer its inconveniences, cares, uneasiness, and anxiety, persuaded that God has laid on the burden….no work will be so mean and sordid as not to have a splendour and value in the eye of God.”

Easy enough, except that as a Christian historian (and a Christian college professor) I stand with one foot in each of Tertullian’s cities, Athens and Jerusalem. Much as I might find my core identity in Christ and his church, I am a member of a secular profession that prescribes what I ought to be doing with my (working) life and sets parameters for defining success in that labor. So while I do trust that Calvin was right that my work has “splendour and value in the eye of God,” nonetheless

part of me fears that, in using the language of calling, I have simply baptized middle-class professionalism and so eroded vocation’s power to deploy us in service of what Hughes calls the “Upside Down Kingdom,” one whose King often esteems our work, Calvin warned, “in a very different way from that in which human reason or philosophy would estimate them.”

Which is why I then turned, again, to Frederick Buechner’s discussion of vocation. First in a sermon preached to students at a private boys’ school in 1969 and then often since then, Buechner urged his audience to listen for the same voice that once called the prophet Isaiah: “To Isaiah, the voice said, ‘Go’ [Isa 6:9], and for each of us there are many voices that say it, but the question is which one will we obey with our lives, which of the voices that call is to be the one we answer.” Most definitely not the voice of “mass culture,” which can also be the voice of professionalism (“blasting forth that the only thing that really matters about your work is how much it will get you in the way of salary and status, and that if it is gladness that you are after, you can save that for weekends”), but the voice calling us “where we most need to go and where we are most needed.” (Among other places, you can find this sermon in Secrets in the Dark.)

Or as he more famously summed it up in a 1973 book, the voice of vocation calls you “Where your deep gladness and the world’s deep need meet” (Wishful Thinking, p. 95).

But, I observed in my essay,

Reynolds, The Infant Samuel
Joshua Reynolds, The Infant Samuel (1776) – Wikimedia

while Isaiah might have been able to hear God’s voice on his own, I suspect that most of us are more like the boy Samuel, who, having been called three times by the God he did not yet know, needed the priest Eli to clue him in to what was happening (1 Sam 3:2-9). The voice of need, surely, and even the voice of our own gladness are more easily heard by others than ourselves. Parents, pastors, mentors, friends, coworkers — at some point, someone noticed joy or need that we couldn’t fully perceive and spoke a word into our lives at precisely the right moment. Like so much else of the Christian life, vocation requires community.

In that sense, it’s good to be a member of a profession that sets expectations for one’s training and work. The American Historical Association isn’t exactly a magisterium, but the collective (if sometimes cacophonous) voice of my fellow AHA members is one I ought not ignore.

But at the same time, participation in such professional communities can, I wrote, “tune our ears to hear voices other than those of our own gladness or the world’s deepest need.” In particular, the professionalization of the historical discipline has led us to the point where (in the words of recent AHA president Richard Cronon, quoted as much as anyone in my essay) “historians too often regard teaching as a distraction, as when we complain ‘I just can’t find enough time for my work’—implying that teaching isn’t part of that work and in fact competes with the ‘real’ work of research” (“And Gladly Teach,” [AHA] Perspectives, December 2012). As I argued at a couple of points in my essay, this shift towards the primacy of research (and that defined very narrowly — more to come) is an observable change over time. For example, Mark Schwehn (in his own unpacking of the “‘real’ work of research” complaint in ch. 1 of Exiles from Eden) points to a debate within late 19th and early 20th century German academe, between those who defended the older ideal of Bildung (which emphasized education as the formation of character) and Max Weber’s Wissenschaft (which emphasized the scholarly activity of producing knowledge — and cared less for how it was transmitted).

As I’ll elaborate on in the remaining two posts in this series, I’ve long known and continually rediscover that nothing, for me, answers the calls of gladness and need better than teaching. But that can clash with what I hear from my profession — and from my employer, one of the increasing number of liberal arts colleges that, as it grows into a master’s level university, has made more and more noise about heightened “scholarship” expectations. (In the same newsletter issue in which Cronon called AHA members back to teaching, there was a report on a survey of 2000 associate and full professors of history. Three numbers that caught my attention: even at non-research universities, around 60% said that monographs and journal articles were highly valued; that’s not as high as the over 70% saying the same as teaching, but it was hard not to notice that nearly the same number — 69% — professed themselves dissatisfied with their undergraduate students.)

Once more from my essay:

For those of us who feel called, first and foremost, to teach — who feel most satisfied serving the needs of students by teaching them histories long since passed over by researchers seeking the next cutting edges — there is a significant tension between our calling and the expectations and prejudices of our profession. If we want recognition and status, tenure and promotion, we are tempted to silence the voices of gladness and need and force ourselves to churn out articles and monographs — sometimes joylessly, and knowing that the primary need being served is that of our own ambition.

Next time: finding gladness in seeking truth.

<<Read the first post in this series                      Read the next post in this series>>

2 thoughts on “The Vocation of a Christian Historian: Profession vs. Calling

  1. I have been enjoying this series. I definitely think that it is a combination of factors that come together. Especially if you are going to be effective in your work.

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