Ethics & Public Policy Center

No Calling Without a Caller

Published in Books & Culture on July 1, 1998


Os Guinness first became a fixture on Christian reading lists with the publication of The Dust of Death: A Critique of the Establishment and the Counter Culture–and a Proposal for a Third Way (InterVarsity, 1973; reissued with a new foreword–and a new subtitle–by Crossway in 1994). Born in China and raised and educated in England, where he took an advanced degree from Oxford University, Guinness was one of many young Christians of diverse persuasions to be markedly influenced by Francis Schaeffer. Guinness, who has lived in the United States since 1984, was the executive director of the Williamsburg Charter Foundation from 1886 to 1989. He is currently the senior fellow of the Trinity Forum, a seminar-style forum for senior executives and political leaders that engages the leading ideas of our day in the context of faith. Guinness is the author of many books, including most recently The Call: Finding and Fulfilling the Central Purpose of Your Life (Word).

Michael Cromartie met with Guinness in Washington, D.C., to talk about his new book.

What was the burden that caused you to write The Call?

Nearly 25 years ago, I left L’Abri after one of the most stimulating and fertile periods in my life. As I left, I wrote down the outline of 25 books that I hoped to write. This was one of the central two or three that I always had in mind to write.

I think calling is the key to two things. On the one hand, it is the key to the enormous quest for individual purpose today, which you see across the Western world: to find the idea, as Kierkegaard put it, for which I can live and die. Clearly, some people are turning toward the East, which is no answer because it ends up in renunciation. Some people are going the Western route toward a kind of Nietzschean Superman. But the deepest answer to individual longing for purpose is to rise to the call of our Creator. So that’s the first reason, the search for individual purpose.

The second is to find and rediscover a truth in the gospel powerful enough to blow aside the constrictions of modernity. As I’ve looked at the great periods of history I’ve asked myself: What was it in the gospel that was so powerful, culturally and historically? Clearly the top two answers are the cross of Christ and calling. Calling was there at Sinai at the birth of the Jewish movement; calling was there at Galilee at the birth of the Christian movement; calling was there critically in the Reformation and its contribution to the rise of the modern world.

I would argue that no truth of the gospel has been more influential in shaping the United States than calling. So when Tocqueville says he sees the whole future of America imprinted in the first Puritan who steps ashore in New England, what he’s talking about centrally is a notion of calling. Even something like “manifest destiny” is a nationalistic, secular distortion of calling. Even the American dream, you could say, is an economic distortion of calling. But much of the dynamism, much of the progress, much of the forward-looking thrust of this great country comes from the Puritan contribution of calling.

Calling has always been critically and powerfully explosive when it has been clearly understood. We need such a truth again today.

When you write about calling, what exactly do you mean?

It is often distorted on one side by being spiritually narrowed into simply meaning guidance. On the secular side, it has been distorted into becoming just your job. By calling I mean that God calls us so decisively in Christ that everything we are, everything we have, and everything we do is invested with a direction and a dynamism because it is done in response to his summons and his call.

You say in your book, “The heart of our yearning is to know why we are each unique, utterly exceptional, and therefore significant as human beings.” You say this in the context of magazines and popular seminars that encourage people to find their true identities in their work. What is it about the Christian view of calling that is different from all that?

There are a number of reasons why there is such a yearning for this today. One is that it has always been the deepest human longing. Another is that in modern society, with all the choice and change we have, the expectation is created that each of us can choose a lifestyle and, above all, a job, that we can really be ourselves in. But the third reason blocks the other two. Of the roughly 20 civilizations in the course of human history, if you take on Toynbee’s reckoning, Western secular civilization is the first that has no agreed-on answer to what is the meaning of individual life. There is a deep yearning today for purpose, and yet enormous ignorance and confusion in terms of how we discover it.

You distinguish in the book between “primary” calling and “secondary” calling. What is the significance of that distinction?

I’ve reintroduced some of the terms that the Reformers used. The primary call is the call by the Lord, to the Lord, for the Lord. That is first and foremost calling as summarized in Jesus’ words “Follow me.” The secondary calling is what we do when we rise to follow him. Some people are taken into homemaking, some into teaching, some into law, some into politics. Our secondary calling is all that we do in response to the primary call. Now the great thing is, the primary must always remain primary, and it must never be cut off from the secondary.

You suggest that when that happens, work becomes idolatry.

Yes. Historically there are two great distortions of calling. One is the Catholic distortion, which is a form of spiritual dualism. It makes the spiritual higher than the secular, so you have a distinction between higher and lower, sacred and secular. As Eusebius called it, a perfect life for the monks, nuns, and priests. Now that is the Catholic distortion, although many Protestants have fallen for it. In evangelical circles we hear of “full-time Christian service,” a term suggesting that a call to the ministry, or the mission field, or evangelism is higher than a call to being a businessperson. This is an utterly disastrous distortion of the scriptural understanding of calling.

The other distortion is the Protestant distortion. Calvin and Martin Luther rightly said that ordinary work, too, is of our calling. But within a hundred-odd years, work and employment began to be used interchangeably with calling and vocation, so that calling became merely your job. Of course, calling is far, far more than that. Above all, it means we are called to Christ in whatever we do.

You quote William Perkins as saying “the action of a shepherd in keeping sheep, performed as I have said in his kind, is as good a work before God as is the action of a judge in giving sentence, or of a magistrate in ruling, or a minister in preaching.” Why was this explosive in its cultural implications?

Perkins was the great “door-opener” of the truth of calling to the English-speaking world, picked up later by John Cotton in New England. And Perkins in turn was following Luther and the great pages in The Babylonian Captivity, written in 1520, where Luther says that the farmer in the fields, or the farmer’s wife in the farmhouse, if they are doing their work by faith for the glory of God, are fulfilling as high and holy a calling as the pastor in the pulpit. Immediately such an outlook gives to the whole of life a dignity.

Back to what you call the “Protestant distortion.” Can you clarify the Protestant overreaction?

After 150 years of Protestantism, what happened was that work was made sacred and calling was made secular. The Bible never makes work sacred. Work has an inherent dignity because we are made in the image of God as subcreators. But in a fallen world, work is partly creative, partly cursed. The Protestant ethic made work itself sacred over time.

By the same token, calling was secularized. The irony of today is that you have many wonderful Catholic brothers and sisters who are closer to Martin Luther on this subject than we are. You have many Protestants, by contrast, who are closer to those Martin Luther attacked. Spiritual dualism regarding work and calling is rearing its ugly head again and is alive and well in Protestant circles.

You say: “If there is no Caller, there are no callings, only work.” What do you mean by that? On the one hand, you have ignorance about calling in Christian circles. On the other, in secular or New Age circles, people are picking up the notion of calling to try to give dignity to work. A simple example is Marilyn Ferguson, whose book The Aquarian Conspiracy is virtually the Bible of the New Age movement. Ferguson rightly says that we want to have a life, not just make a living. But when she introduces the notion of vocation, she is simply juggling with words.

The word vocation, rooted in the Latin word vocare, is exactly the same as the word call, which has an Anglo-Saxon root. There is no such thing as a calling without a Caller. I think we need some of Nietzsche’s honesty. If God is dead, you can’t live as if God is still alive. We need to see that a lot of people in modern society are semantic frauds. They think that by using the word vocation or calling they give a dignity to work even though they don’t believe in God.

You suggest that there is a dark side to calling, “the temptation of conceit.”

There is always one great shadow side of calling. One minute we feel the Lord has said to us, “You are chosen, you are called, you are special, you are gifted.” And the next minute the Devil has whispered the same words in our ear and we say to ourselves, “I’m called, I’m chosen, I’m special, I’m gifted.” There is no question that when you look at the history of calling, many of those who had the strongest sense of calling–including, let’s be honest, many who were Reformed–grew into a sense of destiny that became conceit.

There is a wonderful story of Winston Churchill, who had a Presbyterian in his cabinet, Sir Stafford Cripps, who was known to be rather full of his own sense of individual destiny. Once when he left the cabinet room, Churchill turned to the others and said, “There, but for the grace of God, goes God.”

Why do you suggest that drudgery is part of the cost of discipleship?

Abraham Lincoln said something like “in politics, every man must skin his own skunk.” There is an awful lot in a fallen world that is just a dirty job. Sadly, it often falls to the poor people or, in a family, to the mother. But diapers have to be changed. Trash has to be taken out. Dishes have to be washed. There are certain things that have to be done. We are like Peter, James, and John, who much prefer to be at the top of the mountain and see the vision. But Jesus doesn’t let them stay there when they want to build tabernacles, and instead takes them straight back down in the valley where the demon-possessed son is. Jesus is realistic and practical. He doesn’t think of the moment in the limelight; he picks up a towel and washes the dirty feet of his disciples. There is a realism to calling that makes us face the whole of life in its unvarnished quality.

Something I myself find difficult is doing the menial, the humdrum, with a sense of calling. Yet that is what it used to mean in the past. Calling means not only that there are no “ordinary people” but also, as C. S. Lewis writes in Letters to Malcolm, no “ordinary things.” When you see everything as it is, created by God, you revel in the splendor of the ordinary. The wrinkles of an old woman’s face, the beauty of the tiles on a roof, an old cat–Lewis calls these “patches of God-light.” In other words, in the shadows of a fallen world, the sun from eternity breaks through.

You can see this magnificently in the Shakers. They taught that you make the back of the chair as well as the front and the bottom of the chair as well as the top. Because, as they said, you wanted to make a chair that was “fit for an angel to sit on.”

Contrast that to this: My son and I were down in Orlando at Universal Studios. When the guide was showing us some of the film-set houses, he quipped, “Nothing in Orlando is real that the camera doesn’t see.” And that’s the modern way. It is the surface appearance that is important. What you are in private and on the inside is irrelevant.

How does the notion of calling counter the modern pressures toward secularization?

Secularization is a slippery notion. At its heart is the idea that our consciousness is restricted to the world of the senses–what you can see, touch, taste, weigh, measure, calculate, and so on. We have become as one-dimensional as Elisha’s servant who couldn’t see the chariots and horses of fire. Now Jesus lived in a busy and public world where there was no room to move and hardly room to eat. But in the middle of that, he found time for solitude, prayer, and fasting. So calling, to live as Jesus lived, to follow his way of discipleship, includes being called to the spiritual disciplines, which open up to us a world beyond the five senses.

I remember when I was in Australia, speaking on modernity, a visiting Japanese CEO came up to me and said, “When I meet a Buddhist monk, I meet a holy man in touch with another world. When I meet a Western missionary, I meet a manager who is only in touch with the world I know.” You could say today that many, many Christians are atheists unawares; they are implicit, practicing atheists because they are so secular in their consciousness. So we have words like prayer, supernatural, revival, but we don’t actually operate in the world named by those words. To live with the spiritual disciplines opening us up to another reality, to other powers and other dimensions, cracks secularization very powerfully.

You say that calling is central to the challenge and privilege of finishing well in life. How so?

Previous generations of Christians took seriously the notion of dying well, and you can see that in great old lives like Michelangelo. But today, with lengthy retirement, better health, and higher prosperity, the notion of a golden age (which isn’t in fact always that golden) is possible. Our notion is not simply dying well, but finishing well.

Here is where many of the old problems come again. If you’ve identified calling with your job, and your whole sense of identity and self-worth comes from the job you do, what happens when you lose your job or retire? But the person with a true sense of calling is never uncalled, even if he is unemployed or retired.

Finishing well, of course, ultimately means dying well. When William Wilberforce died, just three days after the abolition of slavery passed in the House of Commons, in the great tribute to him they said that the termination of his life and the termination of his labors coincided. That’s unusual. For most of us, our life will be terminated before our labors.

We need to remember that within the Christian view is a sense of incompleteness. We’re never expected to have completion in the here and now. Very few people will reach a ripe, fully accomplished old age and then die, like a Wilberforce or Winston Churchill. Many more people, whether they are longing for their children’s salvation or something to happen in the world, will see their dreams incomplete. Death is an interruption to what we are doing in this world, but it is also a call home to the Caller. It is not an interruption of our calling; it is the culmination and climax of our calling.

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