Last Word: The Princeton Chapel and Universalist Aspirations

By William Herlands ’12

The Princeton University chapel is central to the two great ceremonies in a Princetonian’s life cycle: Pre-rade and commencement. While the chapel was built in 14th century gothic style, students are often deflated to realize that the building was not constructed in the 1300’s, but rather was commissioned in the early 20th century and designed to match the collegiate gothic style which abounds Princeton’s campus. Since the chapel was originally constructed at a time when the University was a Presbyterian institution, the building was designed to hold Christian services. However, as the University began to welcome students from other religious traditions, the role of the chapel evolved. Today the University’s Office of Religious Life (ORL), which is responsible for the chapel, actively promotes the chapel as an egalitarian, non-denominational space open for the use of spiritual people from all religious faiths and no faith.

The claim that the chapel is not an exclusively Christian space is based on the presumption that a space acquires a purpose only when that space is specifically used for that particular purpose. Thus, the ORL claims that since the chapel is not being used exclusively for Christian services, it is no more a church than a synagogue. Although the chapel is not used exclusively for Christian worship, I will argue that the chapel retains its identity as a distinctly Christian space due to the its decidedly Christian motifs. Furthermore, I will explore how the dispute over the chapel’s affiliation is an instructive case study in determining the educational philosophy of Princeton University in the 21st century.

While the ORL’s desire to open the chapel to the entire Princeton community is based in a sincere concern for student involvement in religious and spiritual life on campus, the claim that all religious traditions should feel comfortable worshiping in the chapel is teetering on the absurd. Like most students, I was awestruck when I first entered the structure: its vaulted ceilings, intricate stained glass, and endless rows of pews instill a sense of austere humility. Yet as a Jew my attention was also drawn to the depictions of Jesus as well as the numerous crosses and devotional art. I was awed, but acutely aware that I was in a church.

Holy spaces acquire and retain their meaning neither by divine law nor magical intervention but rather through the truths of human design and psychology. As I alluded to above, the primary connection between a space and its religious significance is embodied in its architectural design and art. The fact that the University chapel was constructed in the shape of a cross not only signifies its Christian affiliation, but also demonstrates the desire of its patrons to establish a consecrated place for Christian worship that can weather temporal fads of religious crisis and intellectual vogue. Indeed, for over a thousand years Christians have constructed their churches in the shape of the cross, a lasting testament to their commitment to divine immutability in the face of political and cultural instability. In addition to the structural design of the chapel, the ornate depictions of Christian saints, savior, and reformers are obvious manifestations of Christian religiosity within the chapel. Yet the unconscious efforts of designers have also left a decidedly Christian imprint. Orienting the chapel towards an elevated stage at the front of the building is a Christian ritual focus as are the extra pews at the front reserved for a choir. Additionally, the lack of a distinction between male and female seating is primarily Christian, especially in contradistinction to traditional Islamic and Jewish services.

The elements noted above not only mark the space as Christian but also have a significant impact on the worshiper entering the chapel. The flood of memories and associations experienced by a religious practitioner when entering a place of worship is captured by the Psalmist’s poetry: “Because of your unfailing love, I can enter your house; I will worship at your Temple with deepest awe” (5:7). This connection to holy space is not a choice of Reason which can be switched on or off at a whim. Indeed, the visceral connection that we have with the symbology of crosses, Christ, and pews instinctively connects the chapel with Christianity. Thus regardless of who is worshiping, or what is being worshiped in the chapel, it will always be a church.

Perhaps the most convincing counter-argument to my claim is the annual Diwali service conducted in the chapel. Princeton students celebrate Diwali, a late-autumn festival of sacred light in Hindu and other Indian religions, by lighting candles in the chapel. It would seem that the comfort of a religious tradition so foreign to normative Christianity refutes the assertion that the chapel retains a distinctively Christian nature. However, unlike the Abrahamic religions, Hinduism is unique in its ideological commitment to strive towards dissolving boundaries between religious groups with the expectation that all religious traditions and peoples are attempting to access the same truth and achieve the same metaphysical harmony. Were the chapel a fully functional church, Hindus would still not object to holding a Diwali service there.

While the ORL’s insistence of egalitarianism is specific to the chapel, the refusal to recognize the distinct Christian nature of the space reflects broader trends within the University. Princeton seeks diversity because it perceives the intermingling of cultures as an inherent good. Thus the University does not attempt to inculcate students with a particular sense of history, cultural, morality, or ethics but rather expects that students ought to explore independently the gamut of ideas available in this institution. While the desire for intellectual freedom and curiosity implicit in the University’s policies is praiseworthy, the universalist striving of the college is deeply flawed since it does not fortify students with a necessary foundation of culture and ideas.

The University emerges from distinctly Western and Christian traditions. The presence of a University chapel reminds us not only of the Presbyterian heritage of Princeton, but also expresses gratitude towards the religious heritage of other austere institutions from Harvard to Oxford and Cambridge. To recognize the fundamentally Christian origin of the University does not require that we support such institutions today, nor does it mean that we consider Princeton a Christian college any more than we consider the United States to be a Christian nation. Denying the primarily Western Christian character of this institution disregards centuries of philosophical development and cultural influence. The modern science we study in the engineering, biology, and physics departments was primarily developed by Western thinkers, as were the classics of history and political theory. While numerous students study foreign languages, Eastern religion, and anthropology of indigenous peoples, many of the methodologies for these areas of study are credited to Western thinkers. While only the chapel may be built in a cross, Western thought has shaped the entire University.

Indeed, if the University were to recognize and celebrate its Western intellectual foundation and heritage, it would be able to instill a sense of tradition and moral grounding for students while enhancing the ability of students to explore foreign traditions and ideas. In order to constructively engage another culture, a person must understand the cultural tendencies, biases, and ideas which inform her perspective. Only with a solid understanding of the basis for our intellectual history can we truly appreciate the unique variations, gaping distinctions, and powerful nuances that foreign cultures present. We may then decide to incorporate, wrestle with, or reject those new ideas – though we do so with the confidence that we are participating in the construction and critique of a firm intellectual and cultural tradition.

While the chapel may retain its highly Christian significance even in the face of attempted egalitarian sterilization by the University, this does not necessitate that Jews, Muslims, and other peoples of faith or lack of faith need feel uncomfortable or discriminated against in the chapel. Aside from the aesthetic power of the chapel and the deep intellectual and religious history that permeates its walls, a non-Christian can appreciate the numinous nature of Christian ceremonies and the remarkable values of a community committed to the dual service of God and man. Yet when the particular holiness of the space is ignored and the non-Christian is compelled to take ownership of the chapel as “non-denominational,” it leaves the purpose of the space disgraced and non-Christians rather uncomfortable. Instead of ruining the holy by pretending the chapel belongs to all, the University ought to glorify the space as well as respect the particular nature of other religious traditions.

William Herlands is a junior majoring in electrical engineering from New York, NY. He is Editor-in-Chief. He can be reached at herlands@princeton.edu.

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One thought on “Last Word: The Princeton Chapel and Universalist Aspirations

  • May 18, 2011 at 11:09 pm
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    This is an excellent article. Regardless of my own culture, religion or heritage, I know that it was white American Christians who invented free speech, free religion, capitalism, and prosperity.

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