Deacon Profile: Simeon Ilesanmi

Simeon Ilesanmi joined the department of religion in 1993 and was designated as the Washington M. Wingate Professor of Religion in 2009. He received his Ph.D. from Southern Methodist University and his J.D. from Wake Forest University School of Law. Originally from Nigeria, he has had a lifelong interest in religion and ethics, and his work has been published in numerous academic journals. His research focuses on ethics, human rights, war and religion. He has authored a book, Religious Pluralism and the Nigerian State.

Kirsten Hutton/Old Gold & Black

What first got you interested in the field of religion and ethics?

I grew up in a country where religion is not just a theoretical concept, but a way of life. It creates opportunities for harmonies as well as conflicts.

My parents wanted me to study something more practical, medicine or accounting or something like that, but I was really fascinated by the frequent occurrences of religious issues and crises in Nigeria so I wanted to study something that would challenge me and also have relevance to how people frame meaning, look at their lives and the types of categories of understanding that people have for how life is to be lived. That was how I found myself in religious studies.

How are religion and ethics relevant for daily life at Wake Forest?

It’s not necessarily to tell students the kind of moral positions they should hold, but rather to expose them to different moral stances that are out there and the different kinds of practical justifications that different religious communities offer for their positions. As you know, people from numerous religions propound sophisticated and powerful moral visions, which possess intriguing similarities and differences and are not easily reducible to a common denominator. In addition, the variety and particular characteristics of such visions are historically and politically significant in the modern era of increasingly pervasive globalization. It’s important that students become aware of this fact. That way, they are able to reexamine their own positions and then to understand why occasionally, people disagree on issues that may seem very simple, very elementary.

Do you see any room for improvement in the religion department?

Of course, there is always room for improvement in any academic department, including ours. But one area in which our department has seen significant improvement is in the restructuring of our curriculum. We’ve added scholars who specialize in religions other than the Christian tradition. This has allowed us to teach a more diverse range of courses at both the introductory and advanced levels. In fact, we’ve just hired a new colleague who will be joining us in the fall for Jewish Studies.

We are also going to advertise soon to fill a position in African and African-American Religions. When I joined the department of religion in 1993 the department was very much like a divinity school in the sense that the overwhelming majority of the courses we were offering were in Christian studies.

But we have moved away from that approach, and the establishment of the Divinity School by the university over a decade ago provided the impetus to do that.

In addition to the required theory and method courses for our majors, at both undergraduate and graduate levels, students can now expect to acquire a more sophisticated knowledge of multiple religious traditions, how these traditions have impacted and are being reshaped in different societies, and the complex ways in which religions interact with other cultural dynamics, including gender, race, politics, law, sexuality, war, human rights and so on.

So we constantly reexamine ourselves to see where we need improvement and even things that we’ve been doing before, how we can do it differently.

Could you tell me about any research that you’re working on right now?

At the moment, my research really focuses on three main areas.

I work in the area of international human rights, so in addition to the book that you mentioned, many of my journal articles have been in the area of human rights.

The second major area of my research is on the ethics of war.

I consider myself one of the scholars who work in the area of just war theories, and I look at arguments for a “just war” from a variety of perspectives, including issues of war crimes, genocide and things like that.

The third major area of my research is on the relationship between religion and law.

What are some things you like to do when you’re not teaching or researching?

When I’m just relaxing, I like to run. I play table tennis, which you call ping pong here.

I have a 13-year-old son who is a soccer player so he keeps me busy most of the time.

Between his own extracurricular activities and my own running and ping pong activities, there’s little room left.