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American Religious History and Its Importance in Understanding Global Events

Heather CurtisHeather Curtis (ThD, Harvard 2005) joined the Department of Religion in 2007. Her fields include the global history of Christianity, American religious history, and the history of Protestant spirituality and reform movements. “I teach the broad reach of religions, but I focus on Christianity, and predominantly on Protestantism,” says Curtis. “I’ve become more interested in how American Protestants have been involved in transnational movements, particularly the rise of humanitarianism, from about 1870 to World War II.”

Offering collaboration in

  • historical perspectives on religion

Seeking collaboration in

  • contemporary issues of international humanitarianism

Her interest in the rise of humanitarianism grew from an interest in how Protestants dealt with suffering in the late nineteenth century, a time when anesthesia and other medical breakthroughs were changing the experience of pain. “For example, in the medieval period, suffering was an exemplary experience through which a Christian would identify with Christ—that was a goal that many people sought, martyrdom and asceticism,” says Curtis. “How did we go from a state in which that was the ideal to the idea that God didn’t intend for human beings to suffer?” Curtis explores this question in her book Faith in the Great Physician: Suffering and Divine Healing in American Culture, 1860–1900.

Changes in the way many Christians thought about suffering influenced the spread of humanitarianism. If God did not intend for human beings to suffer, then missionaries who went out into the world to spread the gospel might also have an obligation to attempt to relieve suffering. Curtis is looking at this subject by focusing on the humanitarian activities of American evangelicals from 1870 to 1940, a poorly studied period in this group due in part to a dearth of records. Two of her questions are “What happened from the 1870s to the 1940s?” and “How can we think about the relationship between Protestant Christianity, imperialism, capitalism, changes in theology, and globalization?”

“I have an interest in suffering as an ethical question, and I have had great opportunities to be part of collaborative ventures,” says Curtis. One project was with researchers at the Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health at Duke University. She also did collaborative work at Harvard, primarily with a Christian theologian and an evolutionary biologist who was using mathematical game theory to study altruism. Curtis was the historical voice for the project. “Their hope was that there might be some way of starting a different kind of conversation between religion and science by focusing on altruism and theoretical models,” says Curtis. “This three-year project involved scientists, philosophers of mind, psychologists, and other historians.” Curtis found it challenging to understand scientific technologies, and she believes the scientists found it challenging to understand the complexities of a humanities perspective. “But I think it’s valuable,” she says. “The warfare between science and religion has been the dominant assumption of how these disciplines are related, but in fact on the ground there have always been mediations, and so part of my job was to explain that history and to look at the particular phenomenon of the evolution of altruism and cooperation.”

Since coming to Tufts, Curtis has expanded her interests in global Christianity and its connections to international relations and politics. Her students’ interests in how religion influences global engagement—in understanding religion as a phenomenon in contemporary global society—help shape her work. “I hope that I might have more opportunity to talk to people at Fletcher who are doing work on contemporary issues of international philanthropy,” says Curtis.

As a collaborator, Curtis can provide a religious historical perspective on ethical dilemmas that confront contemporary policy makers and humanitarian practitioners. “So even though I’m a historian, I also have an understanding of the contemporary Christian landscape—especially the evangelical world, which is really complicated to navigate sometimes,” says Curtis. “For example, when Sarah Palin announced her candidacy and the media talked about her connections with Pentecostalism, people were asking ‘What’s that and how does it work?’ So there is a sense of wanting more information about these Christian groups.” Curtis looks forward to working with Tufts faculty on future interdisciplinary projects.

For more information, please go to http://ase.tufts.edu/religion/faculty/curtis.asp.



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