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Responding to God’s Call – Jeremy Worthen

August 12, 2018

RTGC‘Formation’ is used frequently in relation to training for ministry, and also to describe the personal and spiritual growth of individuals and congregations. Yet until now it has lacked clear definition.

Responding to God’s Call explores formation as the ways in which Christians are shaped for vocation, and the ways in which we hear and respond to God’s call, whether it is our shared call to grow into the fullness of our baptismal calling, or a distinctive vocation to ordained or lay ministry. . It deserves to be read by any Christian who has every asked themselves the question ‘Who am I?’ and ‘What is God calling me to do in my life?’

The notion of ‘vocation’ has often been conceived in too narrow a sense as vocation simply to the priesthood and religious life. So the emphasis on the annual ‘Vocations Sunday’ in many parishes is simply on vocations to the priesthood. Pope Benedict XVI in his address to young people at Strawberry Hill in September 2010 emphasised that young people need to follow the call to ‘become better people’ suggesting this move away from the narrowly ‘ministerial’ understanding of vocation.

A shift of emphasis enshrined in the document Lumen Gentium where the ministry of all the lay faithful is praised. Worthen’s book reflects this trend. For him Christian formation refers to ‘ways in which Christians are shaped in and for vocation, where vocation names the process of responding to God’s call.’ This usually has an outward manifestation in, for example, the call to ministry, marriage or a particular type of work. However these are particular manifestations of a general and universal call to follow Christ. Worthen is not keen on emphasising the traditional Catholic call to ‘universal holiness’, rather he is concerned with giving us the tools to discern the call of Christ in our particular circumstances and how we can best respond to it in as unfettered fashion as possible. To explicate this he takes two surprisingly diverse ‘spiritual anthropologies.’

In the first half of the book he examines the cultural milieu that shaped the ‘modern’, or rather ‘the post-modern’ person. Here he leans in particular on Charles Taylor’s Secular Age and Sources of the Self (both, oddly enough, not included in the bibliography at the end of the book). He shows a firm grasp of spiritual anthropology as social critique.

In the second part of the book he looks at ‘the great themes’ of traditional Christian theology of vocation: grace, salvation, creation, incarnation and the role of the Church in the realisation of vocation. Drawing heavily here on the ‘grand Protestant tradition’ of writers such as Barth there will be much here that the general reader will find illuminating and inspiring. Seminarians often feel a sense of bereavement when their certainties are challenged by new knowledge but formation is not about loss, or about conforming to an institutional rule book, but about renewal and freedom. We discover our true selves by responding to God’s call and being remade in the image of his Son, who fulfils all human yearning.

Surprisingly, in his final section on how ‘the riches of Tradition’ call inform our pursuit of calling today he returns to Augustinian three Augustinian faculties of He’s right about fear of telling the laity what you learned from Biblical criticism. Also that the Eucharist is central and that any other act of worship should somehow be related to it – though he doesn’t mention Benediction!

I think he will have lost most readers when he gets on to the Trinity. And disappointed others when he says that ‘personal salvation’ – from sin – is basically heretical.

But there is no mention of Simone Weil and Edith Stein


If the popular song that tells us to ‘Search for the hero inside yourself could be 1 an anthem for expressive individualism, its use as a soundtrack for a car advert indicates how that ideology has become bound up with economics.

The promise of freedom through overcoming dependence on others is close to the heartbeat of modern culture. As a way of understanding human fulfilment, it shapes us through political and economic life as well as through the media and the arts. In the contemporary context, it has become bound up with what Charles Taylor calls ‘expressive individualism’, the idea that we can and must actualize ourselves through expressing our unique individuality. This makes it difficult for us to talk about Christian formation relating to the person without this being heard as the message that vocation is really about the individual `living their own life’. If we say it is not about the individual, however, we risk being understood instead as implying that it is all about the institutional Church and conforming to its expectations.

If human beings are defined by their ability to use their independent powers of reason to move from ignorance to truth, then to accept things as true on grounds other than our own process of reasoning here and now is to act in a less than human way. Being properly human means believing only what f can demonstrate is true by reason, just as it means acting on the basis of my own judgement and not in accordance with external authority

Does my mind ‘make things happen’ in my brain? That raises very dif­ficult questions about how the non-physical can act on the physi­cal and anyway invokes an understanding of souls as independent from bodies that has been under sustained attack in much philos­ophy since the seventeenth century. If, however, it is the chemical reactions in my brain that ‘make things happen’ in my conscious mind, then enlightened knowledge seems to have evacuated the Enlightenment ideal of freedom of all meaning. Freedom is and always will be an illusion. We just follow the chemical script.

characteristic approaches to know­ledge in modernity assume that what is known as part of that order is unlike those who know it and hence stand somehow outside it, and therefore knowledge requires us to put aside any misleading sense we may have of being related to what we seek to understand. Hence we should place no trust in empathy or intuition — or in tradition when it comes to understanding the past, for tradition cannot place us in any kind of real relation­ship to history.

within the public and domestic worlds. Social acceptance contraception, women working outside the home, divorce remarriage and gay and lesbian lifestyles have left us able to imagine possibilities for romantic and erotic fulfilment (and d frustration) very different from those that inspired the producers and consumers of the pre-twentieth-century popular ­novel.

In the previous section of the chapter, I tried to explain how story of modern love is bound up with the story of modern tudes to freedom. If nothing I do can be really mine unless it is done freely — in the sense of independently and without authorization by others — then the only kind of relationship that can really express my identity is one that I choose for myself. Love must be free, and that which is presented to me by others does not involve the exercise of my freedom. Hence tak­ing on social roles and responsibilities established by others cannot really be a way of loving, because it cannot be a gesture of freedom as our culture understands it. Doing what I believe to be a duty may be laudable and indeed attract widespread social approval, but it seems strange in our age to talk about it as a form of love.

Even in the mid-twentieth century, it was possible to cele­brate love of the ‘brotherhood of man’ as something to be dem­onstrated in loyal service to communities and in devotion to causes of social progress. The gap, however, between duty and love in our own time is so wide that it is difficult to find any way across it. Law, duty and loyalty stand on one side of the divide; love, choice and intimacy stand on the other. As what happens in the public realm seems quite cut off from the ‘per­sonal’ world of my own freedom, and older notions of stability and commitment are stripped out of the experience of work in contemporary capitalism, so expectations about human fulfil­ment become ever more exclusively focused on intimate rela­tionships and on the space of home and family

what ultimately I love is not you at all but my own satisfaction, ich you for the time being help me to achieve. When you no longer do that, the pleasant illusion of my love will start to fade and either I will have to find a way to suppress my own wishes in order to stay with you, or I will leave you to discover a new context for their satisfaction. Indeed, egoism can have a corresponding kind of ethics according to which it would actu­ally be wrong for me to make a commitment to another per­son which might involve ceasing to be faithful to the ‘truth’ of my own self-interest. Authenticity dictates that I always follow my desires, with the sober knowledge that the only real love is self-love.

we are called into relations of knowledge, freedom and love with other human persons, and this is intrinsic to our humanity. If that is right, it is only in calling and being called by one another that we can begin to respond to the call of our cre­ator. Theologically speaking, therefore, there is no such thing as an ‘individual’ relationship with God. We know God in and with one another.

then to read Genesis 1-3 as an account of human creation is to receive it as a story that illuminates what it means to be human before God today. And what it tells us is that to be human creatures is to be both addressed by God and incapable of saying ‘yes’ to that address in a straightforward way. We are therefore always being drawn into formation as human creatures by God’s call and also always resisting it.

As in Christ we meet the beloved Son of God, so to be in Christ is to share in the eternal life of God which embraces the love that flows between Father, Son and Spirit. It is to find ‘my’ self with human others within God’s Trinitarian being. It is to know a unity with human others and with God that does not efface my unique ‘I’ any more than the unity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit effaces their distinction. God is revealed through Christ as love from all eternity, and there is no love without ‘I’ and ‘you’ in abiding communion.

The purpose that thereby comes to fulfilment, however, is not new at all but reaches back to the act of creation. It is in the beloved Son, who is God’s own image, that human beings become what God has always wanted them to be. This point is crucial not least in resisting the tendency of Western theology since the Middle Ages to shrink the doctrine of salvation to ‘the question of how God forgives sins, and, specifically, whether he has forgiven mine’.”

Like the promises of baptism and of marriage, it is a commit­ment to living one’s life in a particular way whose outcomes are not predictable. This makes it strange in a culture in which the contract is becoming a dominant model for human rela­tionships within the assumptions of egoism (as reviewed in Chapter 3): I commit myself to doing something for you for as long as the outcomes for both of us are satisfactory. Vocation to ordained ministry is by contrast about a commitment to letting my life be shaped by specific responsibilities in the life of the Church, with no opt-out clauses on either side.

Second, the open-ended commitment implied in accepting orders of ministry is lived out in limited and specific offices of ministerial responsibility. Orders are for life, and for every day of our lives; offices are for set periods of time, including potentially set days of the week, and they may even be framed by a formal contract of employment or something very like one. Any office in the Church should be received with a deep sense of gratitude and privilege, but it is also a piece of work and therefore shares in all the complex dynamics that we were describing in the previous section. To expect work for Christian ministry to be somehow protected from the challenges and pressures of ordinary, ‘secular’ work is deeply foolhardy. Work is always secular in the weak sense of that word.

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