The interior of the new chapel. Sheila Butler | Courtesy

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.