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.

  • Ellsworth_Toohey

    I see nothing in the body of your edi­torial to support the headline. Was that your choice? If it was, you should be aware Hillsdale College used to be known as a party school… even reported here in the col­legian:

    As to your L2E, the com­plaints I’ve heard is donor money going to things like a chapel instead of housing. And “out­siders” impres­sions really are all that matters when it comes to recruiting, indeed if what you say is true, that the admis­sions department is tar­geting Catholic high schools, that “impression” may be more than that.

  • Camus53

    This “chapel” is a multi-million dollar vanity project.

    The school has never been Christian in any sense of the meaning and cer­tainly NOT as prac­ticed by its stu­dents.

    A rather sad set of times and events of late at the school. There was a time when the school wel­comed and encouraged diversity of ideas. Those times have now slipped away and are but mem­ories for those few of us old enough to been a part of them.

    Shame on the school, the board and those placing this chapel to plu­tocracy on our campus.

    • Joshua David Joseph Tac­colini

      It is char­ac­ter­istic of a pro­gressive, post-Christian society to think that the inclusion of a reli­gious edifice somehow threatens freedom of thought and diversity of ideas. This is a putrid def­i­n­ition of freedom. The idea of a uni­versity, or a college in this case, has, his­tor­i­cally, Chris­tianity in its very blood. It is only athe­istic modernity which has tried to forget its origins in this regard. I can’t help but surmise, Camus53, that your comment is more rep­re­sen­tative of your username than the state of affairs about a chapel on campus.

      • Camus53

        Thanks. Camus neither fully denied nor did he embrace God . Choosing instead to focus on man and mankind and the totality of today and the con­se­quences of our own actions.

        I would ask you to examine the con­ster­nation that this so called chapel, being built at extreme costs, on a campus lacking even decent housing for its stu­dents, des­ig­nating itself as “Christian” to the exclusion of all others, has already and will con­tinue to cause.

        Had these moneyed interests wished to make a “statement” at the college…would that statement have been much better served by locating this “chapel” some­where else on campus in a much more modest manner befitting a small school in a small com­munity? Perhaps in the arboretum area?

        Pride is after all a car­dinal sin. and Camus was nothing more or less in the end a Christian moralist who cel­e­brated man as man and left God to those who chose to believe or not. And finally yes…he would call a $28 million “chapel” located in the center of a small campus, a campus run by an admin­is­tration that has sud­denly found religion…something they call “christian religion… demanded it be brought to bear upon its stu­dents, a school once thought and rec­og­nized for its encour­agement of freedom and diversity of thoughts, ideas, con­cepts, pol­itics and religion…absurd!