January 7, 2012 / The Church & Postmodern Culture
This Christmas season I had the privilege of attending a memorial service, a vigil in …
August 22, 2013
We might understand this “leveling” or diminishment of elitism as a shift in capital. The idea of “capital” I borrow from Pierre Bourdieu. He uses the term “capital” in various ways (symbolic, cultural, economic) and they are each inextricably related and interchangeable (social and cultural are most easily changed into economic). Specifically, the revolution caused by the emergence of the doctrine of vocation in the reformation churches produced a new framework for imagining “callings.” One’s life’s work was given value not according to some pre-established religious hierarchy or sacred and mundane orders. Rather, every order of labor was now sacred. Furthermore, Luther clearly pointed out that there were various estates or realms in which humans had callings and that each served in them simultaneously. That is, even orders that were not strictly of the economic realm, but still oriented toward service, were sacred. Thus, being a son or daughter, a mother or father, or simply a citizen of the realm was a vocation—those as much as being a prince, a priest, or a monk; a cobbler, baker, student, farmer, or a mason. Furthermore, every person occupied more than one of these vocations or stations (a distinction Luther used concerning Christians or non-Christians respectively) at the same time.
The shift in capital occurred on the cultural register. Bourdieu describes cultural capital as having 3 states: embodied, objective, and institutionalized. Institutionalized capital is that kind which is given by institutions, such as degrees (like PhDs). Objective capital is that which material objects have, such as paintings or complex machines which can produce things. Embodied capital is what we’re interested in here. Embodied capital, according to Bourdieu, has to do with our talents and skills, but also with our knowledge. It’s about what we know and what we can do. Theologically, the reformation doctrine of vocation relativized any sense of elitism about such things. In other words, cultural capital didn’t matter. Whether one was a priest in the sacred order with training (and some didn’t have any…yet their “position” still mattered in the former hierarchy) or was a cobbler with immense “skill” but was still consider of the mundane order, after the doctrine of vocation, such differences no longer held.
Fast forward to the church of today. The doctrine of vocation is still with us but it has suffered greatly. The term “vocation” itself is heard merely as “occupation.” Whether one agrees with Max Weber and his argument about the Spirit of Capitalism or not, he does trace some legitimate problems with how the doctrine of vocation experienced a corruption to the extent that we have inherited such a reduced and thin sense of “calling” than the Reformers ever imagined. Furthermore, given the “spirit of capitalism” that is indeed haunting our time, which I think Weber rightly defines as the desire for profit and its recurrence, we can observe that with the diminishment of the doctrine of vocation in our churches, the formation of Christians has resulted more in line with the spirit of capitalism than the spirit of Christ. As a result, the elitism that was present 5 centuries ago is present again, but in a different manner. No, the distinction between the sacred and mundane vocations has not returned. Rather, a new hierarchy has taken its place. And it works according to the same scheme of cultural capital that Bourdieu helpfully supplies. Now however, we think in economic , social, political, and aesthetic terms. Since our imaginations about vocation are already limited to thinking about occupations, let’s restrict our comments to occupations, that is, jobs. What do we consider in our time to be the most desirable jobs? What is our first consideration, even as Christians? Ask our young people. Often I’m getting answers that are primarily oriented around money. Every now and again I get an answer that’s oriented around a “social justice” issue—but take NOTE: most of the time, those answers are not well grounded—they turn out to be a mere humanitarian motivation rather than a thoroughly Christian one: that’s a problem.
Furthermore, there is judgment about what jobs are undesirable. Flipping burgers, cleaning toilets, picking up trash on the street corner, working with dirty or smelly people or environments—all of these are either unattractive (notice the aesthetic factor) as well as socially avoided. One either thinks that such jobs are best done by someone else (“I’m entitled to something better”) or that being seen doing one of those jobs will be embarrassing. That is because within the present social imaginary, dominated as it is by the “spirit” of capitalism, such occupations appear disdainful and so associating with them in any manner is a social detriment. We all “know” this in the same way Oscar Wilde knew thesocial class of people who worked in factories were the people who “smelled.” He was never taught it directly, just as we are not. He reflected on it later in life as he came to interact with those people—an experience through which his perspective changed—but the fact that we learn and “know” these things is a remarkable point. Our sense of social and cultural capital and how it structures our reflection on and teaching of the doctrine of vocation is a matter of formation that occurs not within the church but outside of it.
Bourdieu is fruitful in excavating this phenomenon for us too. Given that each of us is a member of more than one people group—for instance, not just the church as a particular community but also American culture within which the church exists—Bourdieu helpfully points out how we are formed as people through the practices of the communities of which we are a part. And our imagination concerning vocation is chiefly primed from within American culture and its narrative as it is undergirded by the “spirit of capitalism,” rather than the Christian narrative as it is taught, narrated, performed, and ultimately caught within the Christian community. Perhaps this is because the Christian community merely parrots the American narrative, indicating the illicit relationship between the church and American culture. Various theologians have argued that very point. Stanley Hauerwas is well known for it. Ross Douthat’s recent Bad Religion is particular prescient here if you’re looking for a quick read. The Christian sociologist James Davison Hunter has commented on this issue, calling for its end:
To be sure, it would be impossible to completely disentangle the church from any society in which it is found. Christians, like all human beings, are constituted by the particularities of their time and culture, and it is only natural that they should identify with their communities and nation. But on all fronts, the merging of faith and politics/culture is deeply problematic. It is time for a disentangling.
Hunter’s call is welcome, especially for how vocation has been perverted in our time and wrapped up with concerns about economics and cultural capital. How are you working in your ministry to broaden the sense of calling within the lives of those you serve? How are you working to shape their imagination in such a way that it is further and further disconnected from an economic imagination? How are you giving them language that draws upon the biblical narrative and Christian tradition (and even philosophy for creative ways of saying old things in new ways) to help them resist the language game of the American “spirit” of capitalism with its attendant narrative of work, productivity, consumerism, competition, elitism, etc.? Do you teach vocation in such a way that goes beyond talk of “work” in the strict sense, such that human life is construed in a manner that shows human beings to be made for more than just work? How do the practices of your liturgies and how does your catechesis engage the body (collective [body of Christ] and individual [every Christian]) not just to “know” their lives are always lived in service to others as a form of worship of God (through which he works to care for creation as if behind a mask—Luther), but also to “be” servants who just faithfully serve where ever they are: in the home, in the office, in the classroom, in the operating room, in the line of duty, etc.?
There are many more questions than these which ought to frame our reflection on this issue. Luther’s conception of vocation truly was innovative and genius. Vocation the way the Reformer considered it ought to be recovered in our time.
 See Bourdieu, “Forms of Capital,” in Handbook of Theory of Research for the Sociology of Education, ed. J. E. Richardson (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1986), 241–58.
 Gene Veith, “Vocation: The Theology of the Christian Life,” Journal of Markets and Morality 14 (2011): 119–31.
 Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and The Spirit of Capitalism, trans. Talcott Parsons (New York: Routledge, 2001). See also Nicholas Wolterstorff, “Can Life in Business Still be a Calling? Or is That Day Over? (lecture, Colloquoy on Religious Faith and Economic Life, March 2004), http://reformedtheology.org/SiteFiles/PublicLectures/WolterstorffPL.html.
 See Larry Alex Taunton, “Listening to Young Atheists: Lessons for a Stronger Christianity,” The Atlantic, June 6, 2013 (http://bit.ly/11udXaJ). See particularly the section on “The Mission and the Message of the Church.”
 James Davison Hunter, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (Oxford: Oxford University, 2010), 185.