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Big Change, Strange Circumstance


By Nicholas Lemann

The story begins, Krister Stendahl says, with the separation of church and state in America.

That separation has meant that public schools don't teach religion, which in turn has brought about a dissociation of Christian (but not Jewish) religion from intellectual endeavor. American Christians, the dean of the Divinity School says, worship more out of "childlike faith" than scholarly piety.

Stendahl himself grew up in Sweden, where things were different. After a strong early religious education he went on to become a Doctor of Theology, the highest academic distinction available to theologians tied to the church.

So Stendahl says he is sad, in a way, to see what is happening to the Doctor of Theology (Th.D.) degree in the United States. Scholars here want Ph.D.s, traditionally the highest degrees for intellectuals; and universities hiring theological scholars prefer Ph.D.s to Th.D.s because the secular degree is better known and more widely accepted.

Across the country, then, divinity schools connected with major universities have been dropping their Th.D.s or changing them to Ph.D.s, and Harvard appears to be on the brink of joining the trend.

"I love the Th.D.," Stendahl said last week. "I have one myself. But if Th.D.s will always be discriminated against because of nomenclature, we shouldn't hold on to it." He said his feeling is "we should put the Th.D. on ice, on the back burner."

That change--the phasing out of the Divinity School's highest degree--is likely to be the most important that comes out of the work of a special Divinity School committee that has been studying the future direction of the school.

The committee, established last spring to look into the impact of limited financial resources on the Divinity School's educational priorities, has had a bizarre history.

The Divinity Faculty established the committee when Stendahl was on leave last year, and it is unusual to start a major review of a school when its dean is away.

The committee's work took the entire Divinity School faculty to North Andover a couple of weekends ago for a two-day retreat exclusively devoted to discussing its findings.

And strangest of all, some of the committee's documents--financial records and transcripts of interviews--were stolen three times in late September No one seems to know who the thieves were or why they wanted what the committee had, but they apparently were Divinity School-connected people.

The first two thefts were from the Center for the Study of World Religions, a Divinity-affiliated building--and the thieves had keys. The third theft was from the Cambridge home of the committee's secretary, and the thieves knew where he lived and what documents he had taken home for a little weekend work.

"The last I'd heard it was a little weird," University Police Chief David L. Corski said of the thefts. "Some things had turned up missing and we were trying to find them."

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