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Book Review: Being Called: Scientific, Secular & Sacred Perspectives

When William James wrote Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature in 1902, he was careful to exclude the institutions of religion in institutional settings, and to not debate theological perspectives. In doing so he was able to offer a neutral position on one of the great mysteries in life: How people experience God. He gathered quotes from the famous and not-so-famous on their encounters with mystic experiences as a way of understanding the effect of religion and spirituality on the individual. He was able to penetrate into the personal and direct encounters people have when they have been stirred by the sacred.

But how would William James take on this same project now? How would he have approached the study and understanding of mystical experiences more than a century later, when we have such powerful advances as computers, neuropsychology, and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI)?

When James wrote the Varieties of Religious Experience, he extended the range of what was acceptable for investigation in the field of psychology. Being Called is the next natural evolution in this investigation and will do for this century what William James did for his.

The book draws upon the insights of experts from around the world in psychology, neuroscience, and theology and is divided into two parts. Part one: Scientific and Secular Perspectives, takes a more empirical view of callings, seeing them as natural byproducts of a human brain. Their interpretations are largely framed in how being called toward one’s work affects well-being. Of particular note are the chapters by Amy Wrzesniewski and Ryan Duffy, Richard Douglass, and Kelsey Autin. They offer interesting perspectives and research on the impact of being called to one’s work (including the dark side of being called and not having the skill or ability to follow one’s mission). Mary “Bit” Smith and Susan Rosenthal offer an in-depth review, more specifically, the calling of those to be physicians. David Yaden and Andrew Newberg explore the neurocognitive process behind the voices and visions of being called and their similarity to creative epiphanies. These as well as the other chapters in this section challenge the reader to understand the impact such experiences have on those summoned toward a particular life path.

Part Two, Sacred Perspectives, investigates numinous experiences through the lens of callings as supernatural or divine occurrence. These narratives challenge the reader in a different way. They offer insight and understanding of being called as an encounter with the divine. In reading Being Called I read Part One as a scientist. In Part Two, however, I read it as a student of the mysteries of life.

Sacrifice: The Shadow in the Calling by Gregg Levoy and Already But Not Yet: Calling And Called In Religious Time by Gordon Bermant seem to bookend the experiences of what is left behind or sacrificed when one is called and what we may be moving toward. These chapters provide food for thought about the transformational elements of the experience of being called.

At a more specific level are two other chapters in this section, which I found profoundly moving. The first of these, Calling Of A Wounded Healer: Psychosis, Spirituality, And Shamanism by David Lukoff was one of the more courageous and dramatic narratives in the book. Dr. Lukoff describes a psychotic experience he had that led to him becoming a clinical psychologist — and later how this experience led directly to his integration of “spirituality and psychological approaches to psychotic episodes as well into the larger mental health system.” Ultimately he and his colleagues were responsible for having a new category accepted into the American Psychiatric Association Diagnostic and Statistical Manual—IV and DSM 5, the main reference source used by clinicians for making a diagnosis.

The second chapter of fascination in this section was: “I have been anointed and I have fleeced the Lord”: The Contemporary Serpent Handlers of Appalachia and Their Experience of Being Called by God by Ralph W. Hood Jr. Based on over 20 years of research, this chapter looks at a marginalized sect who interpret the words of the King James Bible in Mark 16:17 literally. This passage states: “And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover” (Mark 16:17–18). Through in-depth interviews he studies the fate of families who continue the practice of handling snakes and drinking poison although they have lost fingers, been bitten and hospitalized, and who have endured the death of other family members.

The author’s sensitivity to the culture, belief system and legal parameters of this sect allows the reader to feel invited into a world that seems so inexplicable that it would be easy to dismiss. This is the main strength of the book as a whole. Each chapter has been carefully selected to illuminate a perspective on the phenomenon of being called that hasn’t been fully articulated elsewhere. While it would have made the review too lengthy, I could have identified the virtues of each chapter. The book pushes the envelope of understanding and inquiry into areas largely unexplored by the sciences. It left me wanting more — which, I assume, is a goal of the collection.

The introduction by Martin Seligman, whose thoughtful and empirically informed inquiries are well known — most notably for his work on learned helplessness and positive psychology — describes his interest and personal experience in being called. Like most great scientists there is a personal alignment with their field of study that comes their ownlife experience. Dr. Seligman reveals the contents of his numinous dream that initiates his calling and offers a theoretical framework for understanding how we may be being called to the future. These insights are invaluable. Rather than divulge them here, it is worth it for readers to absorb his reflections directly. What I will say is that Dr. Seligman feels very much called to do his work as a scientist, is responsible for launching this scholarly inquiry, and has a bold theory as to how and why being called happens.

Finally, there is an appendix by J. Hugh Kempster and David Bryce Yaden that introduces a vehicle for advancing our understanding of these experiences. Mystics Anonymous: An Introduction, which I have written about elsewhere, is a meeting for those who have had a mystical experience and are willing to share it with a group. In preparing for this review I attended a meeting of Mystics Anonymous on October 2, 2015. What I found were a collection of about two dozen people whose interest in sharing and understanding their individual experience allowed for a group to form where their stories could be heard without judgment or analysis. What I was left with was the fact that these experiences are common, that there hasn’t been an acceptable forum for them to be expressed, and that they are an important part of human nature. I was not alone. In 2003, Gallup asked respondents if they had had such an experience that profoundly changed the direction of their life. Over 40 percent said they had.

The book is stimulating, thought-provoking, and challenges our understanding of this widespread phenomenon. It should be essential reading for students in business, theology, and psychology. At the professional level, coaches, consultants, and therapists would also do well to acquaint themselves with the rich collection of writing in this volume.

Being Called: Scientific, Secular, and Sacred Perspectives

David Bryce Yaden, Theo D. McCall, and J. Harold Ellens, Eds.

Praeger, 2015

314 pp.


Book Review: Being Called: Scientific, Secular & Sacred Perspectives

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Daniel Tomasulo, Ph.D.

APA Reference
Tomasulo, D. (2016). Book Review: Being Called: Scientific, Secular & Sacred Perspectives. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 26, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 17 May 2016
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 17 May 2016
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