A foreboding irony settled in the classroom as Professor of English Dwight Lindley read from Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “Binsey Poplars,” the morning workers cleared trees on the quad for chapel construction. Outside the window of Lane Hall, one could see the last of the trees being reduced to a stump under a cloudy sky.
“All felled, felled, are all felled,” the professor’s voice droned.
The sentiment of loss expressed in the poem seemed to illustrate the general negativity about the presence of a chapel on Hillsdale’s campus. More particularly though, it seemed to illustrate a concern about how recent developments, such as the chapel construction and Christianized re-wording of the college’s mission statement, will drastically change Hillsdale’s approach to religion. As Hopkins cried about the trees, “O if we but knew what we do / When we delve or hew,” one could almost hear the skepticism of members of the student body saying that the chapel would damage the college’s heritage, as its former affiliation with Christianity was rather ambiguous.
In a Collegian article from March 26, 2015, titled, “Don’t build the chapel,” the author wrote, “Building the proposed chapel may ruin much of what is beautiful, unique, and inspiring about religion at Hillsdale. It would take an organic entity and institutionalize it, creating some potentially devastating consequences.” The author went on to argue that the presence of a chapel would deter non-religious students from attending Hillsdale, and imply “some sort of religious consensus where one does not necessarily exist.”
Even without an official religious consensus at Hillsdale through a signed statement of faith or a chapel, it is obvious to most insiders that the student body is already predominantly Christian. As far as how the admissions department communicates this unofficial consensus to outsiders, it has advertised Hillsdale’s founding and educational approach as Christian long before the college changed its mission statement or began building a chapel. It should be clear to both insiders and outsiders alike, then, that Hillsdale identifies with Christianity, and the chapel will only make that connection more obvious.
The other main concern raised in the article — that “organic” Christian community would be devastated — is a rather extreme claim.
Organic Christian community is based on the idea that practicing one’s faith is a personal desire, not practiced as a result of compulsion. The result is that fellowship with other Christians often occurs spontaneously, and is not limited to a weekly church gathering.
Several people today refer to organic Christianity as a movement, which it very well may be. But a broader definition of organic Christianity, as denoting individual motivation as opposed to institutional compulsion, can also be found in places like Hillsdale College, where weekly student-led bible studies, worship, and prayer are the norm.
Vibrant Christianity is organic in its very nature. Loss of organic community is a legitimate concern, but it would be a pity if organic community could be so easily destroyed through the mere presence of a building. If a new building could destroy organic Christian community, perhaps the problem is not that the administration decided to build a chapel, but that the faith that should motivate such a community is very weak — which I would argue is not the case here.
At the very least, Hillsdale students will not stop talking about the good, the true, and the beautiful, whether or not the college’s mission statement explicitly defines it as a Christian institution or whether or not we have a chapel. The changes may encourage students and faculty to talk more about Christianity in relation to the liberal arts, but we should not ignore the fact that Christianity has always been a part of these discussions, to some extent, since the college’s founding.
As Hopkins laments that “After-comers cannot guess the beauty been,” we, too, should seriously ask ourselves whether the college’s recent self-defining has the potential to lay an axe to our heritage. It does not, however: the chapel and the mission statement simply affirm an affiliation with Christianity that has always existed in some form. It seems that the chopping down of Hillsdale College’s “binsey poplars,” rather than bringing destruction, finally allows everyone to see the Christian heritage that has been hidden in the growth rings all along.