Snark aside, I do understand their uneasiness. Saying our 'students are called to lives of service' is a conveniently passive-voiced circumlocution. Called? Really? By whom? The theological answer is God. Indeed, the word vocation comes from the Latin vocatio and was originally confined to calling in the spiritual sense. It did not take on its broader connotations until around 1550 when Martin Luther began to extend its use to describe work in secular life. Luther argued that shop-keeping and shoe-making were also God-called activities.
But saying we are called by God is not an especially clarifying answer. Who is this God that calls us? On what authority? More importantly, which specific God is on the line? My students aren't necessarily in agreement on this point (to say nothing of my colleagues). I have had over the years Muslim students, Hindu students, Buddhist students, Jewish students, Catholic students, and even a few Lutherans. I've also had Wiccans, Mormons, Methodists, rock-ribbed Evangelicals and the occasional free thinker. How then can I approach this subject without stepping into a theological minefield?
My solution was especially gutless. I went pagan. I chose the theme of "The Good Life" and paired modern with pre-Christian classical texts. When I say "gutless" I don't mean I went with 'God-free' texts. I mean I went with material I already knew how to teach (and then threw in a few subjects I wanted to talk about). The result has been a highly uneven seminar.
Some days we have explored a rich, interesting idea. Some days I have been tap dancing like a madman to make it all come together. Watching my students opt out of the discussions the last few sessions has made me feel like the worst kind of academic huckster. I didn't do the hard work of figuring out how to teach this seminar. I made a mix tape of past skits and bits and hoped for the best.
Some days I wish that I sold shoes. Now there's a worthy vocation.