Discerning our callings: Creational conversation and conversion

November 7th, 2018

Ephesians 1:4 says that God the Father chose us in Christ "before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him." This is the "hope" to which we are "called" (1:18), to be united in Christ along with all things heavenly and earthly (1:10). In this post I'm going to draw out some of the theological implications of these verses of Ephesians for our vocation, or calling. I'm going to draw a bit on the thought of the late Lutheran theologian Robert Jenson, and on a central idea of the poet-philosopher David Whyte.

In Robert Jenson's short volume, A Theology in Outline, the idea of vocation turns out to be central for interpreting the doctrine of creation as a whole. This is because, for Jenson, Israel's doctrine of creation aligns with Israel's sense of his identity, and Israel knows himself as having been called into existence by being called to follow God in a conversational relationship. Think of Abram in Genesis 12. Abram is as pagan as everyone else when the mysterious voice of God summons him into a covenant relationship. Or think of how God intervenes later to re-found Israel by raising Israel out of slavery in Egypt in the time of Moses: Moses is called by God through the burning bush. God speaks, or calls, Israel into being in both instances, and the Word of the LORD is heard "to kill and make alive" repeatedly in Israel's history. Similarly, and most decisively, Jesus Christ calls his disciples into relationship.

This primacy of God's call in constituting a people is the lens through which Jenson points out that Israel understands creation itself — and in contrast to various other world religions' answers to the question, "Why does anything exist rather than nothing at all?" For Jews and Christians, God speaks — and the world is. God calls all creation into being like God calls a covenant people into being.

The waters get even deeper and more marvelous in Jenson's theology when we consider his characterization of the Trinity. God, for Jenson, is a dramatic interplay of Father, Son and Spirit, whose love we see active and acting in history on the world stage. Jenson thus calls the religion of the Old and New Testaments "dramatic monotheism." God is talkative. God strikes up a conversation with Abram and Moses and us: prayer. The very life of God is a conversation which includes and engages the world.

Jenson's doctrine of God thus enables a deepening return consideration of his doctrine of creation. Creation is called into being out of nothing and called into the conversation of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This is where David Whyte's insight comes in: in his marvelous poetry and reflection, Whyte bears witness to the "conversational nature of reality." On Trinitarian grounds, Jenson would concur.

Let's bring all this to bear, now, directly on the issue of vocation. To exist is to be called into conversation within the Triune God. That's our creaturely vocation. We come to be already "in" and "through" Christ, as Scripture teaches; our life itself is, in a deep sense, our vocation to enter the "love that moves the sun and the other stars" (Dante, Paradiso). The creational conversation we're called into is also, always, a conversion. Deepening conversation and conversion are, hence, in some sense mutually constituting in a Christian sense: we're created because we had a vocation before we were created to be holy and blameless in Christ. And within this creational vocation, which is always already mediated by Christ — Christ the lamb slain from the foundation of the world, as it is provocatively put in Rev. 13:8 — we discern our particular callings.

Our particular callings truly do have to be discerned, discovered, heard. We listen to God and we listen to ourselves, seeking to know ourselves in God and in Christ. This takes prayer and sober self-reflection. We listen into God's conversation going on in and with the world — and that conversation refines our spiritual perceptions, convictions and desires. Our vocation is in this sense overheard. We're like children welcomed into a world bigger than we ever imagined as we listen in to the chatty love of the Trinity around the Communion table. Our process of discerning, discovering, hearing, overhearing takes place in the conversation/conversion of the luminous symposium who is the Trinity. We're dialoguing with God with, and within, all reality, unto the unification of all things in Christ.

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