Teaching Philosophy of Religion and Philosophy of the Human Person sometimes leads to interesting class discussions, where students’ engagement with some important philosophical text intermingles with concerns about the ultimate meaning of their own lives.
In these conversations, two important themes often emerge: “what will I do with my life?” And: “who will I love?”
Elisabeth Elliot’s Passion and Purity is one of the most profound and honest Christian reflections I have ever read on these questions.
In the years just after World War II, while they were both undergraduates at Wheaton, Elisabeth Howard met Jim Elliot. They both desired to serve in the mission field. Both of them were inspired by the example of Amy Carmichael, a single woman who spent decades as a missionary to India, and so they both took seriously the possibility that the demands of missionary work might be incompatible with the demands of marriage and family life.
Therefore, the possibility of being called by God to be a “eunuch for the sake of the kingdom” was real for both of them.
After nearly five years of uncertainty about God’s call—and sometimes heart-wrenching struggle to submit their desires to God’s will—they finally married. But just over two years into their marriage, Jim was martyred by members of the Waodoni tribe.
Elisabeth Elliot’s book is a deeply human meditation on the challenges of discerning and obeying God’s call on our life and submitting to that call in our loves. She does not present an unrealistic or sentimentalized picture of what that obedience looks like: she acknowledges that it is often difficult, but at the same time she never loses sight of the ways that their brief life together flourished deeply because it was grounded in their shared love of God.
There’s an important distinction here. My students asked: “what will I do with my life?” And: “who will I love?”
Like most people in contemporary American culture, they tend to think of these questions in terms of identity formation. But “identity” is often part and parcel with our culture’s individualism and consumerism. In the minds of most Americans, my “identity” is something that fits my preferences, something that I choose for myself.
But this is not the most helpful way of thinking about Christian discipleship.
Instead, we need to move beyond the language of identity to the more fundamental language of vocation, the language of God’s call.
The real questions should be: “What is God calling me to do?” And: “Who is God calling me to love?”
As Christians, we believe that God gives each person gifts. Along with our gifts, He also calls us to build up the Body of Christ in some particular way. Both in the New Testament, and in subsequent Christian thinking, the question of calling is closely connected with both what we will do and who we will love.
Consider the following dialogue: in Matthew 19, the Pharisees approach Jesus to test Him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?”
The Pharisees are asking a question about law; but Jesus immediately shifts the conversation to the creation, and to the nature of marriage itself. The primary question for Christ was not, “What can we do with our wives?” It was “What did God create marriage to be?”
He answers this question by referring to the creation of man and woman in both creation accounts in Genesis, and then concludes, “So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder.”
The Pharisees immediately remind Him that the Law of Moses allowed divorce. Now, Jesus replies: “For your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another, commits adultery.”
Marriage and family life present many challenges, and when Jesus says this, His own disciples immediately object that, if this is what marriage demands, then it is better not to marry. To this, Jesus responds: “Not all men can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given.”
The reality of marriage is often more difficult than the sentimental picture of Hallmark cards or some “family values” rhetoric. It is not easy for a fallen man and a fallen woman to nurture love for a lifetime, to deal with the burdens of child bearing and rearing, to watch children grow and get sick and to discover the many burdens of living in our fallen world. Every spouse and every parent can attest to the times when love is so difficult that it seems impossible. They know the heart-wrenching anxiety that comes from trying to nurture children in a world full of many threats, both natural and man-made.
The Gospel recognizes all this. It recognizes that the task of lifelong love is difficult; but not all are called to marriage: this word calling to lifelong fidelity is not given to all. But, Jesus says, those who have been given it can receive it.
At this point, Jesus emphasizes the diversity of callings, for, in addition to marriage, “there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to receive this, let him receive it.”
Most Catholic and Orthodox thinking on vocation has focused on only the last category of eunuch, those who made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. From this, and some corresponding discussion in I Corinthians 7, a whole theology of callings to religious life has developed. But it’s worth noting that both Jesus here—and Paul in I Corinthians—write about those who are involuntarily single, as well. This is a worthwhile subject for more reflection, though I will wait develop it more deeply in a later post.
Everyone wants a meaningful life. The good news that we have to share with the world is that each person can find this life in using the gifts that God has given us to fulfill our vocation in life and to love the people whom God calls us to love.
When Christians discuss “sexual ethics” today, they often focus, like the Pharisees, on rules: what is permitted? What is forbidden?
Eve Tushnet has pointed out the problem with this: “you can’t have a vocation of not-gay-marrying and not-having-sex. You can’t have a vocation of No.”
But Jesus shifts the focus from rules to vocation.
The more seriously we take marriage, single life, and vowed celibacy as callings, as the way of life within which God Himself asks me to share my gifts and respond to His call, the more seriously we will take the requirements of that way of life: fidelity in marriage, abstinence in singleness. So to shift from talking about sexual ethics to talking about vocation and communion does not mean downplaying or ignoring sexual ethics. Instead, it places those questions in their true context.
However, if we think in this way, then the first questions we ask about any person are: what gifts has God given this person? How does He call them? And this, of course, applies to ourselves, as well: what gifts has God given me? What does God call me to do? In what way of life does He call me to share my gifts? God gives every person (gay and lesbian persons included) various gifts to build up the Church in different ways. While homosexuality creates some unique vocational questions, it does not negate these gifts.
As the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith observed:
The human person, made in the image and likeness of God, can hardly be adequately described by a reductionist reference to his or her sexual orientation. Every one living on the face of the earth has personal problems and difficulties, but challenges to growth, strengths, talents and gifts as well. Today, the Church provides a badly needed context for the care of the human person when she refuses to consider the person as a “heterosexual” or a “homosexual” and insists that every person has a fundamental Identity: the creature of God, and by grace, his child and heir to eternal life.
Ron Belgau is completing a PhD in Philosophy, and teaches medical ethics, philosophy of the human person, ethics, and philosophy of religion.
Oh, these words so firmly echo what God has been teaching me lately. It has been easy for me to see marriage as a calling, in some ways because what God asks of those who are married is so similar to one another. As a single person, our callings are not cookie cutter, but that doesn’t make them less callings. It is impossible for me to mention all of the areas of resonance with this post, so I will simply say, thank you, and please continue.
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What you are saying here seems to be pretty much a general version of the the ‘intentional discipleship’ of the Siena institute.
One issue I have is the role of commitment in contrast to vocation. We always seem to discuss this as if God makes one call and then we get it or we don’t. But what happens if we realize what our vocations is but have made a commitment that prevents us from following up on this (like realizing a vocation to particular missionary work completely unsuitable for bringing a family along).
I am not completely sure what exactly I am thinking about it, but does God change what vocation he calls us to, what gifts he gives us ? And how do our choices and commitments influence this ?
I’m not sure how I’d respond to this question, in part because it’s really hard to ask questions about “what might have happened” if one had chosen differently (think of Aslan’s response to Lucy after the children have not followed his directions in Prince Caspian). Time closes many doors.
I think that our sacred commitments do, to some extent, define our vocation. If someone is ordained a priest, then I think that they are called to be faithful to that calling, even if they later question it. Maybe they were at one time called to marriage, and if they had responded to the call at that time, then that would have been their vocation for life.
But if a person goes through the discernment process for the priesthood, and they commit to ordination and the Church calls them to be a priest, then I think that, once they’ve been ordained, that is their vocation.
Similarly, once a person gets married, then I think marriage is their vocation.
But ultimately, I have a hard enough time figuring out what God is calling me to do now. I have no idea what to say about what would have happened if I’d made other commitments when I was younger. That just seems unknowable to me.
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