Understanding “Calling” in a Multi-Faith Society

David Cunningham, Ph.D. | Professor of Religion, Director of NetVUE

Dr. David Cunningham

Hands down, here’s a college senior’s least favorite question: What are you going to do after graduation? Since 2003 Hope College has taken a focused approach to helping students answer it well.

Dr. David Cunningham arrived at Hope in 2003 to launch the college’s CrossRoads Project, in which students explore what gives them joy — and consider career options with that in mind. In 2017 he completed the process of editing a three-volume series intended to persuade and equip more colleges and universities to do the same — that is, to help students discern a calling to a particular way of life. In September 2017, Cunningham became director of NetVUE (Network for Vocation in Undergraduate Education), the initiative that undergirds programs like CrossRoads at 217 U.S. colleges and universities. NetVUE’s national office has relocated to the Hope campus.

Oxford University Press will publish Hearing Vocation Differently: Meaning, Purpose, and Identity in the Multi-Faith Academy in early 2019. It caps a project that Cunningham began in 2011 by planning seminars for theologians and other scholars to discuss vocation. Since then he’s led seminars, networked with participants, solicited and edited essays, and shepherded three books through the publishing process. Volumes one and two of the series came out in 2016 and 2017. The first, At This Time and in This Place: Vocation and Higher Education, was one of three finalists for the 2017 Lilly Fellows Program Book Award, among 23 books nominated. The biennial award honors books about higher education and the Christian intellectual tradition.

“Vocation is about all the aspects of life that attract us. One difficulty undergraduates often have is they are attracted to a job first. But the question is, ‘What kind of life am I being drawn toward?’” Cunningham says. “Domestic life, civic life, voluntary societies — churches or civic clubs or neighborhood associations — all those things are going to be in people’s lives as well, not just the job. All of these are going to be shaped by the broader experiences of a college education.”

Hope was among 88 schools that piloted Programs for the Theological Exploration of Vocation, funded by the Indianapolis-based Lilly Endowment, Inc. These programs expanded to include more institutions through NetVUE, which is a program of the Council of Independent Colleges. Many NetVUE members are church-related schools; such programs are less common in secular institutions. The upcoming book addresses how to make the concepts of calling and vocation accessible to people of various faiths, or those who claim no faith at all.

“I’m a Christian theologian, so one of the challenges for me was to keep it open and truly multi-faith,” Cunningham says. “It’s not a book about what vocation means to a Muslim or Buddhist, but about how people of other faiths address the big questions of life. It doesn’t ask people to abandon the notion that God may be calling them, but to recognize that others may feel the same calling, the same pull, without the same understanding of God.”