The following excerpt is adapted from a Convocation address delivered at Hillsdale College on April 6, 2017. The Convocation was held in conjunction with a groundbreaking ceremony for the College’s Christ Chapel.
Shortly after this Convocation is over, we’ll go to the site of what will be Hillsdale College’s new building, Christ Chapel as it’s to be known, and with all due ceremony various people will pick up a spade and lift a small pile of earth from one place to another. When all that’s done, a sliver of dirt, a little gash of brown, will lie freshly exposed to the sky. New ground will have been broken. And so the College will have formally declared the start of its latest and in some ways perhaps its greatest enterprise: the building of a chapel to the glory of Christ. This chapel will be built—not to the glory of Hillsdale (though it will redound mightily and rightly to the credit and renown of the College); nor to the glory of the benefactors (though their generosity and public spiritedness can hardly be saluted with sufficient gratitude); nor to the glory of the students who will worship there, graduate there, perform music there (wonderful though all those things most certainly will be). It will be built to the glory of Christ, who Himself glories in our educational endeavors, our philanthropic benefactions, our pupillary activity. For God is no man’s debtor.
Hillsdale College, as you know, was founded in 1844. Article 6 of the College’s Articles of Association states: “Religious culture in particular shall be conserved by the College, and by the selection of instructors and other practicable expedients, it shall be a conspicuous aim to teach by precept and example the essentials of the Christian faith and religion.”
“Religion” tends to get a bad rap these days—and from two directions. On the one hand, we hear people say that they’re spiritual not religious; they may be interested in Christianity, but not religiosity. “Religion” here has come to mean ritualism, the externals of faith. On the other hand, some people take “religion” to mean superstition, even fanaticism, as when Richard Dawkins says that “religion flies planes into buildings but science flies rockets to the moon.” That is surely one of the most fatuous things I’ve ever heard said by an Oxford professor. Why is it fatuous? Firstly, because religion and science—being abstract nouns, not people—don’t actually do anything, good or bad; they’re not agents. And secondly because, if we’re going to play that game of ascribing agency to abstract nouns, one might just as well say “religion gives us Mother Teresa but science gives us mustard gas.” Much better simply to say there can be bad religion and good religion; bad religion done well; good religion done badly; mediocre religion done well or badly—just as is the case with science.
So for many years now I’ve been on a mission to reclaim the word “religion” from this verbicide it’s been suffering. It doesn’t mean formalism or fanaticism. Etymologically, it means rather something like tying back together—re-ligion: re-ligamenting, re-ligaturing, finding the unifying reality behind disparate appearances, seeking oneness, integration, wholeness, “a theory of everything” (as Stephen Hawking might say). Religion in this sense is the opposite of analysis—from the Greek analusis: loosening up. There is a place for analysis, of course: we do often need to loosen things up, pull things apart, dissect. But analysis serves synthesis, doesn’t it? It’s not an end in itself.
You disassemble the engine of your car when it’s malfunctioning in order to find out the problem and then put it back together in working order. It wouldn’t run more smoothly if you just left it in pieces on the garage floor.
You cut open the human body to remove the tumor or the bullet or whatever it may be. Then you sew up the incision, religiously, to bring back health to the organism, health that depends on integration, health that won’t survive perpetual “loosening up.”
You break new ground for a similar reason. You dig up a load of earth and rocks and roots. You loosen it and scatter it about, removing some bits, relocating other bits. And not only physically with earth, but intellectually with architectural principles: you analyze what makes for a good building; you analyze what makes for a good building in this particular place; you analyze what makes for a good building for this particular body of people. All this analysis takes a long time. There’s mess and noise and expense and disagreements. The interruptions to normal life go on for years. All sorts of unexpected problems crop up along the way—and this is when it’s going well!
But as Hillsdale’s motto has it, virtus tentamine gaudet—strength rejoices in the challenge. And the true crop is not these disturbances, these echoes of primordial chaos, when the earth was formless and void. Rather the true harvest of all these efforts will be a noble building, a thing of beauty and a joy forever, in which Hillsdalians shall flourish both individually and corporately, and from which the God who’s given us everything in Christ can be given back the best we have to offer, which is all too little, but in which offering we transcend ourselves and therefore most truly find ourselves.
So analysis, I maintain, is not an end in itself. But is religion an end in itself? Isn’t it possible to be too religious? To be so interested in unity and oneness that you never look for change? Can’t the religious impulse devolve into a kind of frigidity or frozenness, a paralysis in which the way we’ve always done things must be the way we always do things, forever and ever, amen?
That is a danger, yes: obscurantism, the Luddite impulse—tying things back together so tightly that life becomes one big strangulating corset.
True religion should always be corrigible: both self-critical and open to criticism from without, open to revision in the light of new knowledge and in response to new situations. Not cramping in on itself, or incessantly ratcheting up the interior tension, but periodically relaxing, taking stock, surveying new horizons. Like the beating human heart that now contracts, now expands.
In the history of Christianity, Saint Peter and Saint Paul are the great archetypes we’d do well to have in mind when we think like this.
Peter is the rock. That’s what the name Peter means. You don’t have to be a Catholic to recognize that Peter was the first bishop of Rome, and the defining function of any bishop is to sit, rock-like, stationary, in a chair, a cathedra, to be a focus of unity for the flock, which he regulates with his shepherd’s crook. “Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me” [Psalm 23:4]. The Petrine principle provides for fixity, certainty, a still point in a turning world.
Paul is the missionary, the apostle to the Gentiles, who travels all over the Mediterranean, spreading the Word, founding new churches, tackling practical problems, developing new theological understandings, firing off letters, and once even challenging Peter to his face.
The Pauline principle is important because I recognize that not all those at Hillsdale call themselves Christian. Some may not be much interested in the life of the new chapel when it comes. Some may even wish respectfully to challenge this or that aspect of Hillsdale’s priorities. That’s a good role to fulfill in a community. Every human organization needs Pauls as well as Peters, Paulas as well as Petras.
If it was all about Peter, things would petrify. If it was all about Paul, things would be appalling. You need both. The rock in Rome, and the one who roams and rocks. Two principles, in tension with each other, respecting each other, but both seeking one ultimate goal, serving the same beating heart. The heart itself is more important than whether the blood within it happens to be ebbing or flowing.
True religion therefore needs to be understood in two senses: it both does and is. There’s the particular religious impulse, the specific function: the tying back together. And then there’s religion itself: the overall pattern in which the religious and the analytical impulses alternate, the continual, rhythmic, regular process of now tying back, now loosening up.
Neither Peter nor Paul was an end in himself. Each was a servant of Christ. The two pointed to the One, the unity beyond themselves. And that greater unity, that final or ultimate re-ligamenting, is why it’s so fitting that Hillsdale’s new chapel will be known as Christ Chapel, for Christ is the one in whom “all things hold together” [Colossians 1:17], both the tightening and the loosening, both the rock and the rocking.
Today we break new ground. We challenge the rock, so to speak. We do something very Pauline, very analytical, scattering earth this way and that. But we do so with an aim in mind: to develop and extend that ground into a new unity, an enlarged oneness. We have a Petrine end in view.
“There’s a time to scatter stones and a time to gather stones together” [Ecclesiastes 3:5]. May earth be better and heaven be richer for the life and labor of Hillsdale College. Amen.