Vocation Rhetoric – Part 1: “What do you DO?”

Over the past couple of months I have been thinking a great deal about how our American view of vocation has been rhetorically symbolized, particularly within Christian communities. I believe that the topic is multi-faceted, and I see our rhetoric (or lack thereof) concerning vocation to be largely socially constructed. Therefore, one blog post isn’t going to scratch the surface, and I think it would be helpful to take a step-by-step look at the various factors that have contributed to the rhetorical symbolization of vocation. So the next few blog posts will be dedicated to the subject.

To start, I  think we need to consider two questions: (1) What is the difference between occupation and vocation? (2) How has a cultural emphasis on occupation impacted our view of vocation?

We have all been at the party, cook-out, wedding, or any other social event where we had occasion to be introduced to someone new. Just about the first question out of the gate — from either person — is: “What do you do?” The question is targeted at uncovering an occupation, for the harmless purpose of getting to know someone or perhaps just making small talk. But doesn’t it always seem more significant than that? “What do you DO?” The question carries a great amount of rhetorical weight, because hopefully the answer will reveal something significant, meaningful, and maybe even impressive.

However, that is not the only (or most important) reason for the question’s rhetorical significance in our American society. The question is significant because the “doing” refers to one’s occupation, one’s paid work or career, not one’s vocation. In our culture today, vocation is not a term we often hear discussed or described. Occupation, however, has been symbolized (in our everyday language) as the main descriptive of who we are as individuals and what gives our lives meaning in society. I believe that this rhetorical symbolism that has elevated “occupation”  and de-emphasized “vocation” has been detrimental to American society and the Christian community for a couple of reasons. First, it gives primary meaning and worth to work that is compensated monetarily. Second, and by extension, the worth of someone’s work is determined by the specific time and place in which an individual was born. If one’s occupation determines the primary meaning of one’s live, then one’s life is only  significantly meaningful within the specific time and place in history in which that occupation is relevant.

One’s primary life meaning (“calling” — as Christians commonly say) must involve much more than one’s occupation; it is a vocational perspective that determines life’s larger meaning and purpose. However, I do not perceive many Americans (Christians included) approaching daily life from a vocational perspective. I think that Christians have actually adopted an occupation-centric cultural narrative, and I think that the Church has, in some significant ways, been co-opted by that narrative. We need to shift our perspective.

A shift in paradigms from an occupation-centric narrative to a vocation-centric narrative requires the understanding that one’s vocational orientation is primarily philosophical. It is rooted in, and constructed by, one’s presuppositions about the world and one’s place in the world. In a pluralistic society, then, we will see a variety of different interpretations of vocation. Some even lead to an occupation-centric narrative, if one views an individual’s ultimate significance in the world to be based on that person’s contribution within the marketplace or economy.

I think the next step for us should be to take a look at what the term “vocation” actually means and how one’s vocational perspective is formed. I will attempt to tackle these elements in Part 2. In the mean time…your comments, please!

7 thoughts on “Vocation Rhetoric – Part 1: “What do you DO?”

  1. What you’ve written is important. As a pastor, I have been guilty–perhaps implicitly as much as anything–of conflating the two. And it’s an easy thing to do, I think. Vocation is implicit in Adam and Eve in creation (knowing God intimately as his children; making cultures that reflect his design). Work is explicit, so work naturally wins.

    Work is basic. It’s bound inextricably to what it means to be human, and–for whatever reason–to the completion of God’s creative act (Genesis 2:4-5). Therefore, “What do you do?” may be a primal question that reveals something of the imago dei. Though perhaps not the best question with regards to life’s deeper meaning, I like to know what someone does and why.

    Here’s hoping that you can help with metaphors and language that will frame a biblical understanding of vocation. Cause I think about this stuff a lot, and still don’t always get it.

    1. Steve,

      Thanks for the comments! I like your explanation of vocation being implicit and work being explicit. I agree that work is a fundamental part of being human; however, I would argue that the idea of “occupation” is socially constructed. As I alluded to before, not all work fits into a society’s construct of an “occupation.” The idea of “choosing” an occupation is a societal norm in America’s 21st century, but in other countries and during other periods of history this would be a foreign concept. So, when I contrast the terms/rhetorical concepts of “occupation” and “vocation” I am definitely not using “occupation” and “work” synonymously.

      In the society in which we live, I do not see occupation as a negative. I just think it is problematic that we as Christians have a foggy conceptualization of vocation.

      1. Thank you, Jessica. It would be wonderful to have someone like you teach occasionally at the church I lead (insert smiley face emoticon here).

        I thought by this you were using them synonymously: “The question is significant because the “doing” refers to one’s occupation, one’s paid work or career, not one’s vocation.”

        Rhetorically, does occupation fit the same sketchy etymology as career (careen) and job (as in “bank job”)? How are “occupation” and “work” different as you’re using them? Is “occupation” exclusively paid, and “work” paid or unpaid?

        Even having spent a year in a Washington Institute fellowship called “Vocation is integral and not incidental to the Imago Dei” I’m still fuzzy on some of these things. I think most pastors are. Which I guess is your point.

  2. Thanks for the questions, Steve. I think I should have been more clear about defining my terms. By occupation, I am referring to a “job” for which one is paid a salary. I think that in most situations when asked “what they do” people respond by telling their “occupation” (the career/job for which they receive a salary). An occupation may certainly support or coincide with one’s vocation. I just do not see it used in culture as an “umbrella” term that encompasses all meaningful work to which individuals are dedicated. Hopefully, thinking of occupation in these terms will make more sense once I explain how I see vocation defined (that’s Part 2).

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