“An uncalled life is an autonomous existence in which there is no intrusion, disruption, or redefinition, no appearance or utterance of the Holy. We may imagine in our autonomous existence, moreover, that no one knows our name until we announce it, and no one requires anything of us except that for which we volunteer. The life of Moses in this narrative, as the lives of all people who live in this narrative of faith, is not autonomous. There is this One who knows and calls by name, even while we imagine we are unknown and unsummoned.”
We have become, as one book title describes it, “a Nation of Strangers.” A dramatic and overblown phrase, but decent shorthand for the cultural atmosphere of individualism that most Americans inhale. Amidst this atmosphere, it is easy to believe that the self is something you have rather than something you receive, a possession rather than a gift you are given in relation with God and others. The Bible understands the human individual, the “self,” through the idea of covenant. In the above quote, Walter Brueggemann comments on how Exodus 3–Moses’ encounter with God in the burning bush–articulates the connection between vocation, identity, and a commitment to those outside of ourselves. Vocation, community, and covenant are an interwoven trinity.
God is the one who makes covenants, who initiates the relationship that defines and redefines who we are. In response to God’s call, “Moses, Moses!” in Exodus 3, Moses says “Here I am.” We are found in our naming by God, by the interruption of the holy in our lives. Within the context of covenant, vocation questions are identity questions. The questions of “Who am I” and “What should I do” or “How should I live” are inseparable from one another. The typically self-focused nature of these questions and how we go about answering them are undone through the disruptive gift that is God’s call. “Who am I” is answered in my answer to God’s call. To put it in terms of covenant, the answer to these questions come in the form of the covenants you make and keep, through your response and commitment to the God who names.
Augustine’s seminal statement, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in you” is in part a statement about covenants. Until we are in communion with our creator, living in light of God’s acts and promises, we are untethered from our true selves. Our humanity finds itself through the act of resting in and responding to God. We are fully human, flourishing creatures of the creator, when our commitments and duties are structured by our loving response to God. This response to God is the well from which our communal identity rises, as John Zizioulas says: “true personhood arises not from one’s individualistic isolation from others, but from love and relationship with others, from communion.” Hence, our vocations are ultimately about the place and people to which we give and receive covenantal love. To draw from Robert Jenson, this covenantal love is not so much an internal state, an interior feeling as it is a network of communication and life: “love does not point to what is inside us but what is between us.” The ropes of love between us are tied with the knots of covenant.
Covenants are always communal, always about remembering the difference “the God who names” makes for our life together. It is only when we hear God call our name, that we can say “Here I am.”