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Intellect and Religious Imagination

Ann Mellow
February 14, 2012
Anna Devere Smith is best known for powerful and provocative performances. She is perhaps less well known as an Episcopalian.

Smith has just begun a residency at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco centered on the theme of "grace." The following exchange between Ms. Smith and the Very Reverend Jane Shaw, the Cathedral's dean, was included in a February 10 article in the New York Times:

“I think people would be very surprised to hear you say that you’re Episcopalian."

”What would they think I’d be?” Ms. Smith asked.

“You’re a smart person. Why would you be religious?” parried Dean Shaw, in her clipped British accent.

Ms. Smith, however, did not take the bait. Calling religion “an extraordinary act of imagination,” she likened the experience of working on a stage production to the rituals in a church.

I love this exchange. Dean Shaw captures a view held by many a liberal intellectual: that smart people are too smart to believe in religion; ergo those who are religious must not be very smart. Sadly, the current political discourse on religion continues to pit science, reason, and religion against one another.

But Anna Deavere Smith, a smart person indeed, refuses to buy into an intellect-or-religion dichotomy. On the contrary, in her description of religion as “an extraordinary act of imagination” the two become bound together; the intellect is not in conflict with religion but offers a way into some deeper understanding and expression of religious experience.

Priests, rabbis, theologians, and intellectuals of many faiths (and none at all) have long understood what Ms. Smith and Dean Shaw know well: that the intellect is essential to understanding religion and religious experience. This has been a hallmark of Anglicanism and the Episcopal Church for centuries.

The religious imagination and the power of the intellect. Episcopal schools are places where both matter and both can and should be explored, together, wherever they may lead.

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