Q&A with religion professor Devin Singh
From kung fu training in Thailand to poetry writing, Devin Singh, now beginning his second year at Dartmouth, is not your typical religion professor. Growing up in a multicultural family, Singh’s childhood consisted of extensive traveling and cultural exposure. His experiences living in Morocco, Punjab, Romania, Bosnia, Thailand and Cameroon, where his home was bombed as collateral damage in an attempted coup d’état, left him with a fascination with the cultural diversity of the world and a yearning to learn more. After earning a Ph.D. from Yale University, he became a Mellon postdoctoral fellow in integrated humanities and a lecturer in religious studies at Yale. Currently, he is a 2016-2017 Dartmouth Public Voices Fellow with OpEd Project. His study of the close relationship between economic concepts and Christianity was awarded the Whiting Fellowship at Yale and the Manfred Lautenshlaeger Award for Theological Promise from the University of Heidelberg, Germany.
Singh’s academic interests center on religious thought in the modern West and in sites of colonial encounter. He is particularly interested in the relationship between Christian tradition and economic and political factors. His current book project, “God’s Coin: Theology, Politics, and Monetary Economy,” addresses the role that monetary and economic concepts played in creating the Christian doctrine and the resulting God-like image of money in the Western mindset. Singh is teaching “God and Money,” “What Matters” and “Religion and Social Capital.” The Dartmouth sat down with Singh to discuss his work, life and time so far at the College.
What brought you to Dartmouth and what have you enjoyed so far during your first year here?
DS: There was a great job opening and, from a practical perspective, there were a few folks here who taught in ethics and philosophy of religion, which are areas that I work on. Dartmouth is just such a great place, having fantastic students to interact with, and I enjoy my experience in the classroom interacting with students in both small seminars and larger lectures. The College is also very supportive of its faculty in terms of research and publications and things like that, so it was a very appealing, very cool context.
Do you have any favorite classes that you teach either here or in the past?
DS: The “God and Money” class was a great experience. I also teach a class called “What Matters” that I’ll be teaching again this winter, which was fabulous. In this class we explore questions of meaning and significance. What does it mean to say that something matters, and how do we even decide that? It was also an introduction to modern religious thought and philosophy, so we read a lot of famous philosophers. Students really jumped in to own the material, and people were very open and transparent about their own struggles regarding “what does it mean to look at meaning in life?” and “how do I find meaning in life?” And we could relate this philosophical stuff to everyone’s own personal question of what it means to live significantly in the modern world. There was a cool session where I had students do team presentations and people did things such as “what is Instagram all about?” in terms of the power of the image and why we are so obsessed with our own image maintenance. So all these were cool ways to look at contemporary culture except with these questions of meaning and significance. We had a section on religion and technology, where we watched the movie “Her,” which was about what it means to fall in love with artificial intelligence and what kinds of questions that raises. Do we need to be in love with somebody who has a body? Why or why not? Why is that significant?
In your opinion, what makes the study of religion so important and what about it is applicable to different disciplines?
DS: Religion, probably together with philosophy, but particularly in religion, is one of these lenses or approaches where we can talk openly about things like belief, values, significance, meaning. These are all things that are still part of other disciplines, but other disciplines maybe don’t address them directly. Religion allows you to ask those questions head-on and to talk about things like morality and ethics as well, which are all important discussions. Even though we can’t necessarily say that we all agree in terms of ethical decisions, we still need to have those conversations and wrestle with them and try to agree as a society or a community about what is ethical or good. Religion gives us those kind of insights and also helps us think about alternatives like other kinds of worlds and other possibilities, whether it’s a redeemed world or Heaven. Language like that gets at thinking about transforming our current world and transforming situations of injustice or suffering. It also forges an empathetic mindset as well because we’re reading people’s beliefs and values that may be very different from ours. I think students, particularly students here, have been good about not just saying “this is weird, I don’t agree, and I don’t want to engage,” but instead “let me read this and really dig in and try to figure out why it matters so much to them and maybe that will help me to understand my own world and understand their world better.” People can kind of project themselves into somebody else’s perspective and point of view as well. It also teaches people to be really good analysts of culture and look at things critically to see the hidden values and value judgements in society.
How did your unique upbringing influence your work?
DS: So my dad is from India, my mom is Anglo-American, or basically white, and so there was that multi-cultural background for me. I was already born into a situation where I was having to cross cultures and different religious backgrounds, whether Sikh or generally non-denominational or Episcopalian on my mom’s side. My mom joined the foreign service working for the state department, the USAID [United States Agency for International Development], doing diplomatic and developmental work around the world, so I was raised as a child in Cameroon and Morocco, thrown into these different cultures, religious, linguistic contexts and everything. I think my upbringing made these realities much more real to me, that there are so many different perspectives, so many different ideas about what a well-lived life looks like, so I didn’t take those things for granted. I chose to major in religion as an undergraduate at Pomona mainly just because it was what was interesting to me at the time. I didn’t pick it as a career choice necessarily, but I thought “this is what really matters to me now, to talk to folks about the big questions of life and meaning and whatnot,” and I think part of that was working through this upbringing. Religion became a really useful framework to talk about questions of compassion, suffering, justice, economics and politics, which all really relate to religion today.
What do you like to do for fun, outside of the classroom?
DS: I play guitar, and I was also trained in martial arts for a lot of my life so I have my black belt in kung fu. I went to Thailand to train and did some full contact kickboxing. Physical fitness is also helpful to stay sane, whether it is running or weight-lifting. Also I’ve dabbled a little bit in art, whether it is drawing or poetry or things like that to sort of balance out the really heavy stuff that I have to do for work. I do a lot of traveling as well. Growing up the way I did, I kind of have the travel bug in my blood so I’m always trying to visit new cities, new countries. And then, of course, hanging out with friends, cooking and chatting, that sort of stuff.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.