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Headline: Craig Dykstra's Address to Participants in the PTEV Final Conference: What Now Do We Mean By the Theological Exploration of Vocation?
Author: Craig Dykstra
Synopsis: This address was delivered by Craig Dykstra, Senior Vice President, Religion, Lilly Endowment Inc. at the PTEV Final Conference, February 8-10, 2007, in Indianapolis. In this plenary address, Dykstra responds to two questions: What was the nature of the experiment we began in 2000? and What now do we mean by the theological exploration of vocation? To view Craig Dykstra's opening plenary address from 2003, "The Theological Exploration of Vocation," click here.
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What Now Do We Mean by the Theological Exploration of Vocation?

Welcome to Indianapolis!—which, it seems right now, is located somewhere in northern Minnesota. We are thrilled to have you here. During the course of the PTEV initiative, which began seven years ago, there have been many gatherings, large and small, but never before have so many people from all of the colleges and universities involved in this initiative come together in one place. We have ahead of us a very, very special three days, and we are delighted you are here.

We would not be here at all—nor would the prospects of our gathering be nearly so promising—were it not for the devoted and splendid labors of Kim Maphis Early and her colleagues Becky Eberhart and Karla Van Zee. They have sent us our invitations, brought us together, prepared the feast that is before us and are providing once again their trademark hospitality which enables us all to sense a deep spirit of welcome. These dedicated people have supported, informed and guided the work each of us has been doing over and again on so many occasions and in so many ways that they are now far too manifold to recount. As we begin, therefore, I would like to ask Kim, Becky and Karla all to stand and receive our thanks.

I also want to say a word of thanks to my colleague, Chris Coble. As Lilly Endowment’s program officer, Chris has led this initiative from the beginning and worked long and hard with each of you as you have prepared your proposals and developed your programs. Neither he nor I could possibly count the hours, days, weeks and months he has spent with you in meetings and on the phone and in reading and thinking through all the reports and resources you have produced and sent his way. He has worked very closely with Kim on this conference and throughout the course of this initiative, and with a spirit of collaboration and shared purpose that has been beautiful to witness. So, Chris: my thanks, our thanks, to you as well. We are all very grateful.

Kim and Chris have asked me to launch this conference by addressing two questions:

What was the nature of the experiment we began in 2000? and

What now do we mean by the theological exploration of vocation?

I am delighted to try to do so.

After each of the three rounds of initial funding in this initiative was completed and a new group of schools embarked on the actual creation and development of their programs, we held a conference. Each time, I gave a speech in which I tried to describe what, from the point of view of Lilly Endowment, we thought this initiative was all about. I tried to answer three questions: “Why did the Endowment launch this program in the first place? What do we hope will result from it? And what, by the way, do we mean by this somewhat enigmatic phrase, ‘theological exploration of vocation’?”

In that address, I said the following:

    The "theological exploration of vocation" is meant, first of all, to be an honest inquiry, a true exploration. What does Lilly mean by “theological exploration of vocation”? The honest answer to the question is this: “we don't exactly know.” That is what we hope you will figure out. Indeed, that is what we hope we will all help each other to figure out over the next four or five years or more.

At the time, “theological exploration of vocation" was for us more an important question to ask than it was an answer we had some way of providing. And it never was, in our minds, a specific program that we were hoping, through our funding, to seduce you into conducting on your campuses. Rather, what we hoped for was a dialogue on what vocation is and how one comes to have a sense of having one. We hoped for a dialogue that would be many-layered; that would include many voices; that would draw on profound traditions of moral, religious and spiritual wisdom; and that would bring to bear the experience and insights of a wide variety of people, including not only your faculties and staff, but also—and perhaps especially—your students. And that is precisely what has taken place! What we hoped for actually came to be.

At each of those conferences, I said: I think we will know good answers to the question of what "the theological exploration of vocation" really is

    only as a result of the accumulated insight of all the thinking, reading, writing, and teaching that you will engage in—as well as through your conversing with your students, your “going along with them” as they strive, with your help, to figure out how best to employ their gifts and energies and spend their lives in the world. Only then will we really come to know in some depth what "theological exploration of vocation" might actually mean.

I do not believe I will ever find words adequate to the depth of joy and gratitude that I experience as a result of what has happened since. What was at the beginning only an honest question has become, in fact, a splendid and powerful reality! As a result of your willingness to engage in this inquiry so diligently, imaginatively, intelligently and, indeed, faithfully, “theological exploration of vocation” is now a reality on all your campuses and in thousands of lives. The original question, “what is it?” has manifold answers of great power and significance. And you have created these living answers through precisely the kind of serious thought, pedagogical craftsmanship, and deep engagement in broad, collaborative inquiry that we had sensed and hoped you would when all of this first got started. I don’t know how Lilly Endowment could possibly have hoped for (or even imagined) more or better than what has come to be—and will continue to be for many, many years to come.

I congratulate you and thank you. If anyone now wants to know what “theological exploration of vocation” is and means, all they have to do is look carefully at what you have created and are now making possible in the lives of many. And if anyone wants to know what its value and impact is, all they have to do is attend carefully to the lives and testimonies of the students, faculty and other members of your campus and religious communities who have been engaged in the theological exploration of vocation with you.


In this regard, however, we face a challenge. A great many people and institutions (both in higher education and in the church and other religious communities) do, in fact, want to know what the “theological exploration of vocation” is and means. They are deeply interested in this question precisely because they are noticing what is going on on your campuses and are seeing the results. But because the empirical answer to the question is a reality of such scale and complexity, it is very difficult to comprehend or adequately digest.

We ourselves—all of us gathered here—are just beginning to get the big picture in view and are only starting to parse the details. You will, at this conference, I hope, learn a lot more from each other—through our panels, the various learning centers and the face-to-face conversations you will have with colleagues from other campuses. Already there are quite a few books, essays and other resources produced by the various programs that describe theological exploration of vocation in very illuminating ways. But there is a lot of work to be done in the years to come to investigate, comprehend, analyze, digest and describe in some depth the most significant defining features and the convictions, values, fundamental practices and purposes that, across programs, give the theological exploration of vocation some measure of real coherence. This afternoon I would like to make just a few remarks along these lines and see if you think they might take us in the right direction.

At the beginning of this experiment, we wondered if the term, the concept, the theme of vocation would have any resonance in our contemporary situation. We suspected that, to most people, the word “vocation,” if it meant anything, meant “job”— probably the kind of job for which only a technical sort of education is required, not the full-orbed humanistic kind of education to which the liberal arts aspire. Could “vocation” come to mean more than that? Could it be heard as a word that many people (including many young people) could come to sense has something to do with the shape and arc of their whole lives, with what one dedicates oneself to in every aspect of their lives (including their work), with who one most fundamentally is and is becoming? And could vocation have to do in some profoundly intrinsic way with what liberal and professional education at their best are all about?

We knew that the word “vocation” has a long, deep religious history and, in some quarters still, profound religious connotations. Could a term that means “calling”—indeed, “calling from God”—be made welcome on contemporary, pluralistic college and university campuses? Could the word and concept be fruitfully employed by their students, faculty, staff, administrators, and some of their multiple constituents? Could it be a theme that would bring diverse people together—people from a variety of religious traditions (as well as people who participate in no religious tradition at all)—in ways that foster meaningful engagements and serious conversation about things that matter? Could an explicitly theological/religious/spiritual exploration of vocation provide space for inter-religious understanding and respect? Or would it simply alienate people further from one another, and thus only reinforce what some described as a pervasive “culture of silence” about religious belief and practice?

We knew when we started that, on many campuses (including church-related institutions), support, encouragement and guidance for those who are—or might be, or should be—interested in pastoral ministry or other professions of religious leadership were typically in short supply. Could the theological exploration of vocation on college and university campuses foster robust efforts to change that situation? Could ministry come to be considered an attractive profession alongside others that are esteemed in our society, one that peers and professors would come to regard as worthy for some of their school’s most talented students if it seemed to be their proper calling?

I think we know the answers to all those questions now, and the answer in every case is yes. Whether the answer would be “yes,” or could be “yes,” or even should be “yes” in every case was not always clear. These questions were all intensely explored on every campus—intellectually, pedagogically, politically, culturally, religiously, theologically, programmatically, institutionally and interpersonally. Almost everywhere, these questions were not only worked on and thought through. In many cases, they have been struggled over, fiercely debated, and sometimes heatedly contested. A number of them still are. But over time, with a great deal of hard work and persistent engagement, every one of your schools made enormous progress in working out answers—answers that have drawn on the resources of your religious and educational traditions, answers that make sense in your context, answers that fit with your institution’s history and mission. And, so far as I can tell from your reports and proposals, from the public materials you are producing, and from conversations I have had with many of you, the answers are all various forms of “yes.”

If I am right about this, then I think the original conceptual framework that shaped this initiative from the beginning still holds as a basic framework to use to understand what we mean now by “theological exploration of vocation.” And if so, we can continue to employ it as we attempt to analyze and understand it as an empirical reality on your campuses and within the lives of the various people whose lives you are shaping by what you are doing.


From observing your work, however, I have come to see that the original framework was inadequate, at least in one regard. There is another aspect to what you have done that was, at best, only latent in the originating framework. And to my mind, it may be one of the most important features of the theological exploration of vocation for us to recognize and attend to.

I have come to recognize that you have done something much more significant—and much more difficult—than simply create programs for the theological exploration of vocation. You have created not just programs, but, indeed, whole environments for the theological exploration of vocation. You have created cultures for the theological exploration of vocation. You have drawn on, renewed and reshaped the deep cultures of your institutions in ways that make such exploration both more likely and more profound. I think this is enormously significant—both with regard to the range and depth of impact you are having, and on the very meaning of the theological exploration of vocation.

We all know that what really shapes, forms and educates a person in a holistic way is the character, quality, substance and spirit of the effective environment in which they dwell. What shapes our lives most powerfully is the culture in which we live. Many contemporary critics of American higher education claim that what’s most troubling about our post-secondary institutions is that they have no culture at all, that humane culture has been drained out of them, and that we are thus left with a mere hodge-podge of competing and incommensurate interests, powers, and discrete purposes. The university, the critics claim, is no university at all. It is at best a “multiversity”—but even that may be too generous. Our colleges and universities have become, they say, mere instruments available for use by whoever has the power to manipulate them in the direction of their particular (and, most likely, self-serving) social, technical or economic interests. Colleges and universities, if they are this, have no power to educate and form human selves (much less souls!) holistically. All they can do is shape people into their own likeness, turning human beings into tools competent in the production of the society’s desired goods and consumers eager to and capable of purchasing them.

That is the criticism. But what you have made plain is that that portrait is not only far too bleak, but actually quite off the mark. What is true of your colleges and universities is that they continue to be humanly nourishing environments and formative cultures. They are fertile still in the traditions of the liberal arts and sciences, and in humane conceptions of work and the professions. You have within the DNA of your institutions religious traditions that were there at your founding and that continue to be powerful sources of wisdom and practice—and with these grants you have brought them into play in fresh and powerful ways. Because of what you are and have long been, you have been able to create, out of the nutrients in your own soil, landscapes, environments, “worlds” in which serious theological exploration of vocation can take place.

If we are to take the word exploration of vocation seriously enough, it is landscapes, environments, worlds, cultures that we need—not just programs. If vocation has to do with the shape and arc of a person’s whole life, with what a person dedicates oneself to in every aspect of their life, and with who one most fundamentally is and is becoming, then the territory on which the theological exploration of vocation takes place has to be broad enough, rich enough, and compelling enough to make it true to real life. There’s got to be room enough for the explorer to venture out widely and deeply. And the substance of the “world” they explore has to be full, dense and compelling enough to be worthy of their best attention. In addition, the explorers must be free to look for themselves, to go where they need to go, to engage their own sense of personal agency in ways that make the exploration their own. They need freedom to move (not just metaphorically, in their heads, but, physically, with their bodies). They need time and space to take things in (not only into their minds, but also into their hearts). They need to be able to go away for a time—and then to come home again as well.

The theological exploration of vocation demands, I am learning from you, religiously and culturally rich and expansive environments in which people—often together, though sometimes alone—are freed and enabled to study, read, think, and reflect; to play and to pray; to serve and to rest; to test oneself; to fall and to fail; to succeed and to rise up; to speak with their own voices and to hear their voices being heard; to express, to sing, to draw, to dance; to be overwhelmed, to experience fear and to learn hope; to challenge, to criticize; to affirm and to believe. In and through your programs, projects, activities and relationships, you have been creating environments rich in all these ways. And because they are human environments, they are also formative cultures abundant in narrative and story, symbol and ritual, tradition and history.

You have used your PTEV grants to create and enlarge, on the fertile soil of your own institutional cultures, profoundly nourishing environments for the theological exploration of vocation. In doing so, you have drawn deeply on the wells of your own histories and traditions; you have made new and strengthened connections with religious and other institutions both close at hand and formerly beyond your ken; and you have sent your students, faculty and others out into places within your own towns and cities they have never been, and also across the globe.

If I am right that you have used your grants to go far beyond simply developing clusters of discrete programs and activities, but instead have created, enlarged and deepened expansive environments in which your students and your community are enabled to engage in the theological exploration of vocation—and if I am right to claim that such environments are, in fact, essential for that exploration—then, it seems to me crucial that we investigate the breadth, substance, and dynamics of those environments as part of our effort to understand what we mean by the theological exploration of vocation and what it actually consists of empirically.

You have told us in your reports and publications that, in creating and enlarging these environments, the language of vocation has been very important. Clearly, language—particularly language people actually use to express themselves and communicate with one another at every level—is a fundamental aspect of every human environment, every thick culture. When a word such as “vocation” becomes prevalent in the language of a culture and is employed in the everyday stories people tell, the jokes they laugh at, the songs they sing, the way they explain themselves and their actions to one another, then it has the power to shape lives. Further, if the language of vocation retains its religious resonances, it has the capacity to enlarge still further the scope and depth of the culture itself. Religious language, rituals, and symbols (whether explicit or implicit) often bear what Peter Berger once called “signals of transcendence.” The form, rhythm and resonance of the language itself communicates, in effect, that this environment is not closed; it is not just an artifact of our own creation. The realms of meaning to which such language points and reaches are, in fact, sacred—and we are dealing with something holy here.


There is much more to be said, but not by me. Only one thing more in conclusion. The world of higher education in the U.S.—and across the globe, for that matter—is huge and complex. In the face of that enormity, this group of church-related colleges and universities may seem relatively insignificant. But I think not! I think you are at the vanguard. I think you have figured out something that the rest of higher education really needs and for which many in that world are actively searching. So, I have one more great hope for all of you: namely, that, as you continue your efforts to deepen and sustain the theological exploration of vocation on your campuses, you will also continue to speak forthrightly and clearly about what the theological exploration of vocation is and means—both in concept and in practice. In so doing, you will be able to play a very, very important role in leading and helping others as they search for ways to provide truly humane forms of higher education for our young people and for the world.

I hope each and every one of you find your time at this conference to be richly rewarding. God’s blessings on all of you. Thank you very much.

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