Acton Institute Powerblog

What old age teaches us about Christian vocation

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We live in a society that is prone to an increasingly utilitarian and consumeristic way of thinking, a mindset that can quickly pollute our imaginations when it comes to work, vocation, and economics.

For some, vocation and work are primarily about self-interest and status, a mechanism for gaining power, influence, and wealth that may, in turn, lead to other mutual value. Yet this is nowhere near the beginning or end of our role as Christians within the economic order.

As human beings created in the image of God, we are co-creators called to far more than economic hedonism. We belong to a human community wherein the typical caricatures about “economic man” simply don’t hold up.

For Jennifer Morse, this lesson was learned upon encountering the simple vulnerability of an infant. “We are not born as rational, choosing agents, able to defend ourselves and our property, able to negotiate contracts and exchanges,” she writes in Love and Economics. “We are born as dependent babies, utterly incapable of meeting our own needs—or even of knowing what our needs are.” For Whittaker Chambers, a similar realization led to the dismantling of his  materialistic progressivism. Upon learning of his wife’s decision not to abort their unborn child, Chambers’ ideology was shook to the core. “A wild joy swept me,” he writes in Witness. “Reason, the agony of my family, the Communist Party and its theories, the wars and revolutions of the twentieth century, crumbled at the touch of the child.”

Given our great strides in modern medicine life expectancy, much of those same revelations can now be found in the latter seasons of old age, a period where one’s “usefulness” is increasingly challenged by the culture’s ever-narrowing standards — even as that same “usefulness” is exposed as not being the center of all things.

In a powerful set of reflections at The Christian Century, Joyce Ann Mercer, a professor of pastoral care at Yale Divinity School, explores those same lessons based on her own study and experience. “If vocation is about God’s call to persons (and communities) claiming us across the whole of our lives,” she writes, “surely God calls older adults to vocations of service and love too. But life and vocation in older adulthood are distinctive.”

Mercer puts much of her focus on the decline of the human body, a feature that she believes is far too under-discussed and under-emphasized in our discussions about vocation and work. “Older adults’ amplified awareness of bodies, their limits and possibilities, underscores God’s creation of human beings for vocation as the embodied creatures we are,” she writes. “…The heightened body consciousness of older adulthood critiques the cultural overvaluing of independence and autonomy.”

In old age, there is a slowing down, she explains, whether of the human body or of time itself, another reality that challenges our modern priorities of speed, efficiency, and convenience. This “slowness” can quickly lead to isolation and loneliness, a retreat backward as the surrounding world grows in restless impatience. But from a different perspective, such a position serves as an invitation to participate in a personal exchange with those in these sorts of circumstances. “If we understand vocation not as a possession,” Mercer writes, “but rather as an interaction with God’s purposes that takes place within a relational ecology, then it seems possible to imagine loneliness in older adulthood evoking the community’s capacities to provide a web of relationships in which older adults can grieve well.”

Overall, it reminds us that vocation is ultimately not about us. It is, as Benjamin Mann once wrote, “a school of charity” or “the means by which your self-serving ego will die in order to be resurrected as the servant and lover of God.” In that broader perspective, the vocational opportunities in old age are countless, visible primarily through a distinct context of community, service, and love.

As Mercer explains:

God’s calling within older adulthood’s limits, especially under conditions of disability, redefines usefulness and value in human life. Being useful for God’s purposes might be best understood not in what a person herself can do, but instead through the power of her circumstances to evoke empathy, compassion, care, and attention among those in relationship with her as caregivers, family, faith community, and friends. Older adults may call forth in others untested capacities of loyalty, commitment, justice, and love.

Put differently, God’s call in older adulthood sometimes takes place in a receptive-dependent mode, a vocation of forming others in faith by evoking in them the practices, habits, and dispositions of faithful people. Receptive dependency may not be an easy position for people schooled in cultural norms of self-sufficiency, autonomy, and individualism. The call to receive care (and in so doing, to nurture the caring capacities of others) reminds the rest of the faith community that we are created for relational interdependence rather than self-sufficiency. God’s call for older adults to receive care from others is also a call to experience the care and presence of God.

The value of that sort of relational exchange may be clearer to see and understand in old age or infanthood, but we should be careful to recognize that the underlying lessons apply to all else, whatever the phase of life or family or career. Without an overarching philosophy of life and a basic willingness to sacrifice our own convenience, we quickly give way to those tired, transactional notions about vocation and work.

Although the presence of economic growth or certain material benefits may at first seem more prevalent or palpable in other corners of the economy, such efforts will surely fall short without a corresponding foundation of service and love.

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Working for Our Neighbor

Working for Our Neighbor

The Protestant Reformation was a catalyst for social mobility, universal education, and the rise of modern market economies. In his classic study The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Max Weber showed the connections between Protestantism and the new economics. Weber, however, focused on the Calvinists and Puritans and speculated that economic success became a way of proving one’s election. He thus posited, with little evidence, a spiritual self-interest that was parallel to economic self-interest, distorting both Protestantism and capitalism. Weber neglected the specifically Lutheran doctrine of vocation, which emphasizes the spiritual and moral value of economic activity. According to Luther, God himself is hidden in vocation, as he providentially works through ordinary human beings to care for his creation. In their work—not only in the economy, but also in family, church, and community—Christians live out their faith in love and service to their neighbors. For Lutherans, the doctrine of vocation is nothing less than the theology of the Christian life. In its social impact, vocation gave a theological basis for the division of labor, social equality, and individual freedom. In this elucidating work, Gene Edward Veith connects vocation to justification, good works, and Christian freedom—defining how the Lutheran contribution to economics can transfigure ordinary life, and work, with the powerful presence of God.

Joseph Sunde is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as The Federalist, First Things, The City, The Christian Post, The Stream, Charisma News, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.

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