In the not-too-distant past, the word vocation was more commonly used in a manner nearer to its original sense of “calling” than it often is today. I am grateful that at Luther College, we are exploring together this word and its meaning for us as an academic community. One of the exciting things about our sharing a common academic calling (as we at Luther do) is that as we help our students to find their own giftedness and ultimately their own vocations, we, too, have the chance to refine our own ideas of vocation in conversation with one another. This special part of our common academic task has the potential to greatly enrich our work together.
From early on during my undergraduate years at Whitman College, a small, private, liberal arts college in Washington State, I have felt a strong call to teach at the college level. At first, however, I’m not sure I knew to what kind of institution I felt most drawn. Unbeknownst to me at the time, though, I was developing a perspective concerning the role of a college faculty member that is rather liberal arts-ian. I envisioned the life of a college professor as one characterized by a strong sense of community, forged through significant connections with other faculty and students. I always saw a college as a place in which faculty and students, while each working diligently in their respective disciplines, were also engaged in conversation about important issues, sharing ideas and expertise that each brought to the table. I consequently never felt fully at home in the narrowly focused research environment I worked in as a graduate student and as a postdoctoral researcher, in which my interactions with others rarely crossed the divide between physics and “other.” I soon realized that if I’d ever fulfill the vocation I felt so strongly, I needed (though Tom Wolfe would tell me not to bother trying) to “go home again” to the liberal arts college environment. The career I yearned for wouldn’t likely be found in the comparatively sterile atmosphere of the research university. At Luther, I have found my way home again, with joy.
As a result of my journey through various kinds of institutions, I have become more convinced than ever that my call to teach has rather little to do with simply providing students a wealth of facts. My purpose in teaching is not to serve as some kind of conduit for knowledge, as though it was my job to simply pour brute facts like oil through a funnel into the open receptacles students carry around atop their necks. My calling is rather both broader and deeper (and less comical). I am called, as a teacher, to first of all help students to capably and critically assess the problems of the day in their chosen field, and to be able to do so with humility and discernment. Furthermore, my role involves helping students see the work in their field in context of the broader world, and to learn to engage the community around them in conversation that lead to deeper explorations of questions of life, purpose, and faith. My aim is to serve as a co-laborer in learning and as a guide, as well as a teacher, leading by example much more than by standing idle, sporting the black robe inscribed with gold threads that spell “Expert,” in fancy script. (That robe remains in my closet, though, for appropriate occasions.)
The old idea of vocation is vitally connected with the notion of service to God and to the world. At this point, my faith comes directly to bear on my own understanding of vocation and gives additional shape, purpose, and value to what I do as a professor. Now as a Christian teaching physics in a college with a particular Christian faith tradition, I do not necessarily present different content than my non-Christian counterparts at secular institutions. The laws of physics, frankly, are the same regardless of one’s faith commitments. However, the way I approach teaching and my goals in teaching both feel the influence of my faith in important ways.
For example, I must teach from a standpoint of humility and honesty, as a finite person trying to grasp the mysteries of an incredibly rich and marvelously detailed universe. Part of my calling is to invite students to share the wonder and enjoyment of studying the beauty of nature and the laws that govern it. I feel as though I am engaged with all of nature, as the psalmist writes in Psalm 19, giving voice to proclamations of God’s glory as I talk about what lies before my eyes in our study of the universe. The more I study, the more finite I feel—and the more clearly the magnitude of my own lack of knowledge becomes. In teaching I have to readily admit that while we do understand a great deal, there is still a multitude of things we just don’t yet have a handle on. Sharing this perspective with students is an important part of my vocation as a teacher.
A favorite film of mine is Chariots of Fire, and one of my favorite moments in the film shows Eric Liddell explaining to his sister his drive to compete as a runner. “Jenny,” he says, “God made me fast, and when I run, I feel His pleasure.” If we only had Liddell’s perspective on our gifts and our vocations! I firmly believe that both gifts and talents, and vocations for which those gifts are a means to fulfillment, are given to people by the same giver. Recognizing and appreciating those gifts, and sensing the purpose with which they and one’s vocation have been given, is something I wish for all. Part of my vocation, I believe, involves helping students come to a similar recognition of and appreciation of their gifts, and thereby discern their own calling in life.
I should add that while I have written at some length in discussing my understanding of my vocation, I certainly cannot pretend to have all this worked out exhaustively, not by any means. My statements here are simply a snapshot of where my thinking is at present. Working out this philosophy of vocation in which life, academics, and the Luther community are so deeply interrelated will be a lifetime activity. It is a vital part of my commitment as a Christian in academia, and something to which I eagerly look forward. One of the great pleasures I have in working at Luther is that I am in the midst of many who are working out their own understanding of their vocation as well—young and old alike—as together we share a common vocation as an academic community. May we together serve, then, in our various particular vocations, the common calling we share. Soli Deo Gloria.