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A Prayer for Christians...

By Jendi B. Reiter

AS I RACED from my class at the Divinity School over to Neil L. Rudenstine's inauguration last Friday, I was just in time to hear the booming tones of the Reverend Peter J. Gomes as he delivered his opening prayer.

The inclusion of this religious ceremony surprised me. Why, in a university as diverse as Harvard, was it still considered appropriate for the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals to inject a sectarian note into an occasion that was important to the entire Harvard community? The rationale could have been none other than tradition.

After all, that's why we still sing "Fair Harvard" despite its references to the Puritans. But it seems that there is a difference between these reminders of our sectarian past and the Reverend Gomes's prayer, which extended that tradition beyond appropriate boundaries.

At the Harvard Divinity School (HDS), I often am reminded of the fact that Harvard was founded by Puritans as a training ground for ministers. Although HDS does not disavow this aspect of its history, it is now a center for the study of all religions.

As we were reminded at the inauguration, the Harvard seal used to say "Christo et ecclesia" in addition to the familiar "Veritas." But this traditional reference to Christ was similarly discontinued because it was considered too exclusive, even though it is still mentioned as a characteristic of the University's past.

Tradition is not to be followed blindly or discarded blindly. It can be set aside or modified without being rejected as our heritage and as a stage in our development as an institution.

AS PRAYERS GO, Gomes's (which he wrote himself) was a good one, praising values that few would dispute--wisdom, justice, courage and mercy. And even though the prayer was tied to one particular denomination, it attempted to be universal and all-embracing. God was invoked as "though who art named by all the languages of earth" and later as "the God of all languages, all places, all people, and all time."

Yet its very inclusiveness, which would have made it an admirable prayer for a sectarian service, sent mixed messages at a secular ceremony. Gomes seemed to imply that all religions could be subsumed under the heading of Christianity. That Christianity was taken to include all faiths is evident from his reference to "this college, dedicated to the Truth for Christ and the Church."

This is why it was inappropriate for a minister--or a rabbi or a priest--to deliver a prayer at the inauguration. A speech would have been acceptable, but this was not a speech: Gomes was called on to represent religion, which (whether the contents of the prayer were specifically Protestant or not) means that "religion" and "Protestantism" are still officially equated.

At this ceremony, perhaps the most important in this generation of Harvard students and faculty, one religion was made the norm and the rest were supposed to fall under the heading of "diversity." Gomes's very efforts to make it more universal only prove my point. If a non-denominational prayer was desired, why pick a minister to deliver it? Simply put, because Harvard believes that this one religion is uniquely qualified to represent or speak for all others.

In fact, it is not qualified, neither in theory nor in actual practice. Even the less specifically Christian sections of the prayer revealed Christian assumptions about how to pray on behalf of other religions.

The "God of all people" doesn't exist for Buddhists, for example. Not all religions can be fit into the paradigm presented by "Christ and the Church." This problem is obviously not unique to Christianity. It arises whenever any one point of view is made to speak for others.

TWO SOLUTIONS to this dilemma come to mind. One is, of course, to omit the whole thing. However, the idea of an opening prayer seems to me to be still valuable because it reminds us of transcendent values that the University and our education are meant to sustain.

The other solution might be to have an opening prayer by someone who is not an official representative of any religion. This prayer should refer to the Puritans' original conception of Harvard as an "earthly encampment of the City of God," as Gomes's prayer eloquently put it.

But it would not (as his did) act as if that specific tradition were being continued to the present day, with no change except that the Puritans' big crimson umbrella now covered a more diverse bunch of Veritas-seekers. Maybe such a prayer wouldn't mention God, but it would still call us to uphold sacred values like "Truth" and "Right" and the "Fair" in "Fair" Harvard."

That's the real legacy we want to continue.

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