8 October 2008

Calling as Transcendence

Filed under: Ktismata, Psychology — ktismatics @ 5:14 pm

A friend of Anne’s recently asked for my opinion as a Ph.D. psychologist about the idea of a “calling.” She clarified: there’s the person who feels a calling to be a chef, and then there’s a calling from God to undertake some sort of mission on His behalf. She was interested exclusively in the latter, and wondered whether those who experience such a calling might be classified by professional psychologists as schizophrenic because they claim to hear voices telling them what to do. This woman apparently believes in divine callings and hearing God’s voice. I told her I mostly believed in the idea of being called to be a chef so I couldn’t be much help on her project.

Just as the word “passion” carries connotations of sexual desire, so does “calling” imply mystical communion with the transcendent — but I think that’s not all bad. Here’s how I’d make the distinction between passion and calling. If I I derive pleasure from my own cooking — I enjoy the process and the results — then I have a passion for cooking. If other people derive pleasure from my cooking — they enjoy eating what I make — then I have a calling to cook.

Framed in mystical terms, the relationship between passion and calling is a relationship between immanence and transcendence. Like everyone else, I have an innate biological need for nourishment, and I’m genetically equipped to satisfy this need by having a desire to seek out food and to experience the olfactory and gustatory pleasure of eating digestible and nourishing foods. My passion for cooking is “fed” by a desire to conjoin my biological needs to certain features of the environment that can satisfy my needs. This linking of organism to environment via desire is immanent in the sense that comes up from underneath who I am as a conscious and intentional agent in the world, both preceding and shaping my preferences for particular types of food and my efforts to prepare it according to my tastes.

But my immanent desire for nutritious and tasty food isn’t unique to me; it’s a desire I share with every human. As a species we are linked together by the internal need for nourishment and the external attraction that draws us to nourishing foods. In a sense, then, the desire for food transcends me as an individual: it’s a force that links all of us together. Seeking food is a primary reason either to cooperate or to compete with one another; eating food serves as a main reason for getting together communally; cultivating divergent tastes in food becomes a basis for conversation. If other people happen to enjoy the foods I prepare, they are likely to express that enjoyment by wanting me to repeat the performance. This is a “call” — a summons issued from outside me to satisfy others’ desires. If I have a desire to satisfy others’ desire, then I’m likely to respond by cooking for them again.

Things work out wonderfully if immanence flows into transcendence and vice versa; that is, if others issue a calling for me to exercise my passion. When I like to cook I do it better; when I do it better others want me to do it; when others want me to do it I’m more likely to oblige. Passion and calling reinforce one another in a circuit of desire linking me to others through our mutual attraction to something in the world that we need and like.

I’ve presented the desire-calling circuitry almost entirely in terms of biology. It starts getting mystical when we start moving beyond instincts and appetites, beyond personal and common tastes, into something like culinary excellence and sophisticated palates and the sheer aesthetic multisensory beauty of the food. Then the passion becomes infused with something deep and rare, and the cook heeds a higher calling that perhaps at first no one but he can hear. Then the cook becomes a chef and an artist of la haute cuisine; then the desire that flows from instinct and food through into the higher human culture him begins to feel like the mysterious workings of the Holy Spirit…

{On a related subject, see Erdman’s post on the Pay-as-you-go Church.]



  1. What does someone do who has a passion and also feels like it’s a calling, but they do not find anyone to connect with who has a similar energy???? The artist who believes that he creates great art–outside of the established paradigm–and yet no one appreciates it. Yet he longs to have others appreciate it, and so there seems to be a sense of void: something is missing without others who can draw energy from his artistic output. So there is frustration…or maybe depression…or maybe the person just quits and settles for a less passionate but more culturally accepted form of art….or maybe the artist becomes angry, resentful and bitter……or maybe the emptiness and frustration itself becomes the source of greater inspiration.

    I tend to think that it is possible that some of the greatest art can come from such frustration. It’s almost as though libidinal energy grows out of the lack of libidinal energy that one is expecting to receive from other. One always has a sense of having something to prove; there is never a sense of having “arrived.” Doesn’t it seem as though artists who make it into the big time seem to lose something? Especially in today’s world where some artists (musicians, actors, etc.) can come into obscene amounts of wealth and prosperity. When you have everything you need, then where does your originality come from? Creativity seems to flourish when the individual is kept on the margins of society.

    I suppose in the terminology of this post, I am suggesting that we add a third element, something like creative inspiration to the already existing passion and calling. Or perhaps this inspiration is already a part of passion? In any event, I am just putting out a suggestion that if passion/creativity is separated from calling (i.e., no one else “resonates” with one’s personal passion/creativity, thus leaving the person essentially feeling isolated), then this might in some cases actually generate more inspirational creativity.

    Sometimes a genius needs to be pushed out of the status quo and into the margins, because it is only on the margins, as an outsider, that he can truly divorce his art from the status quo and thus be as truly original and creative as possible. Conversely, I would say that I know many people whose “calling” has all but extinguished their “passion” and creativity/inspiration/imagination.

    Comment by Erdman — 9 October 2008 @ 7:16 am

  2. Excellent observations Erdman. You’re calling attention to symptoms of something wrong with the passion-calling circuitry: a short in your first example, something like an overload or lack of resistance in the second one. In both cases it’s possible that the passionate worker can hear a higher calling that transcends popular tastes which either exclude or co-opt the work of passion. This higher call might keep him/her from either falling into despair or selling out. In all likelihood the solutions to these problems won’t be universal, and the individual might need to undertake some intensive “listening to the symptom” in order to make sense of the signal it’s sending.

    I think the person who works from passion is exercising something like faith in the other: that the other will want to tune into the worker’s frequency; that the other maintains responsiveness to the signals being emitted on a fairly broad band, rather than just demanding only a very narrow band of products; that the other too is cultivating higher and deeper tastes. How much are popular tastes “natural,” and how much are they shaped by marketing? It’s easier to satisfy predictable mass consumer demand than it is to take the risk on possibly better but more unusual products. There are perhaps many lucky ones whose passions happen to correspond with already-existing popular tastes. But then it’s hard for the person who grows accustomed to popular acclaim to cultivate his/her passion further or to tune into a more refined call (or so I imagine).

    Inspiration = in-spirited. I’d say that inspiration is related to passion, or maybe it’s the same thing. Etymologically, “passion” comes from the Latin word for “suffering” — so it’s not just a matter of enjoyment to follow one’s passion. You’ve pointed out some of the hazards: being ignored, becoming absorbed into the herd. In a real sense one must endure one’s passion. Recall that Christ’s suffering and death is referred to as The Passion: the presumption is that he didn’t just act from duty, but that he experienced some sort of inner desire pushing him through to the end.

    Comment by ktismatics — 9 October 2008 @ 1:51 pm

  3. On further reflection, I believe that one of the most helpful things you can do for somebody else is to reaffirm his or her passion by issuing a pure call for him/her to express that passion. Passions get muted by non-responsiveness; they get distorted by popular demand and money. The person who has become passionate about something is also implicitly responding to his/her own call, to what he or she would desire if someone else were to offer it. If you can reflect the person’s passion back to him/her in a way that resonates with his/her own tastes, that would at least reaffirm this person’s own work. If you can also issue the higher call, from the perspective of truth, beauty or justice relative to what this person’s passion is, then maybe you can call the person to even better work than s/he would do based strictly on his/her own passion and vision and inspiration.

    Comment by ktismatics — 10 October 2008 @ 4:23 am

  4. I terms of “calling” and Deleuze inspired immanence, you might find this Study of St. Paul by Alain Badiou, if you have not read it:


    There Badious argues for an eruptive sense of calling, the way a single event can occur that suddenly recontextualizes every meaning in a new, open framework. I think if one is going treat the difference between immanence and calling something of this eruptive disjunction has to be included. Because Badiou (an atheist) positions this in terms of Paul, given what I read on your weblog, you may find this of interest, if you have not read it. It is a fascinating small book.


    Comment by kvond — 18 October 2008 @ 4:18 pm

  5. Yes, Badiou frames Paul’s calling in terms first of the event of his conversion on the road to Damascus, but more importantly in the universal event of Jesus’s resurrection. As you say Badiou is atheist, and in part he’s humoring Paul’s belief in an external event as the basis for calling. But he is I think being Lacanian here in the sense that, from within the living death of overdetermination by cultural constraints, it’s possible to “rise from the dead” as an individual subject, joined to other subjects in love as a political alliance that collapses the old categories like Jew versus Gentile.

    I like this book, and wrote a series of four posts on this book, beginning with this one. If you want to see the whole series you can either click forward on the top of that first post past the Diary of a Country Priest post and you’ll find the other three in consecutive order. Or you can search for Badiou on the “search” utility at the right side of the page just above the historical archives.

    Comment by ktismatics — 19 October 2008 @ 4:22 pm

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