Editor’s note: The following essay by one of our contributors, Race Hochdorf, discusses a recent lecture given at his college by Rainn Wilson, best known for his role as Dwight Schrute in “The Office.”
The event had been advertised throughout the University of North Texas campus for well over a month. Dwight Schrute was coming to talk about “life’s deep questions.” It was hard to take such a prospect seriously when the wording on the poster, “Chew On Life’s Big Questions,” sat next to a face that waxed goofy in a way that only “Schrute” could pull off. This was going to be a comic routine. A stand-up act that had somehow sneaked its way into the Distinguished Lectures program.
As the night of the event finally arrives, students, faculty and journalists file into a large coliseum where the center is darkened, save for a stage and podium that are illuminated by yellow light. A student gives an introduction amid loud hooping and hollering — as if Dwight Schrute from “The Office” needs introducing. Eventually the student body representative appears to realize that nobody gives a damn about what he is saying and steps off the stage, pointing to his left and shouting, “Rainn Wilson!”
Wilson charges toward the stage with boyish enthusiasm, waving with a comically eerie smile that stretches wide across his face. He jumps onto the stage — now he will give his lecture… No — he’s back off the stage again, and running towards the exit. The audience erupts into laughter and we all look at him and each other… of course this will be a comic routine.
He walks back cooly to the stage once more and grasps the podium.
I stifle a chuckle. Bahá’í? That sounds very Eastern. You’re pasty white and you look like Dexter from “Dexter’s Laboratory.” Obviously this is leading to a punchline. Like Steve Martin’s “I was born a poor black child.”
I keep listening for the joke, and keep listening, and keep listening…
“The Bahá’í Faith was full of progressive and beautiful teachings that were instilled in me when I was a child.”
And that’s the moment I realize, everyone was expecting Dwight Schrute. I was expecting Dwight Schrute. But what I and the audience were getting was something far better. Instead, we were being treated to a very intimate Rainn Wilson. I look at him closely for the first time and see a determined, almost missional, look on his face. This will not be a comic routine. This will be very serious. I look again at the small poster that was handed to me at the door, and the words hit me powerfully for the first time though I had read them before: “Chew on life’s big questions.”
“I had always harbored a closet desire to become an actor. I didn’t share that desire with anyone until one day, in high school, I approached my favorite teacher and asked her ‘Do-d-dya think I could be annnactor?'” He mimics his teacher’s voice in a hilariously high-pitched feminine squeal: “‘OF COURSE YOU CAN!’
“But when I first pursued acting at NYU, I began to lose my faith,” he continued. “I was about 20 years old and I went through an incredibly selfish, incredibly rebellious stage where I became an atheist and didn’t believe in God, mainly because I wanted to rebel against my parents and follow my baser instincts.
“Eventually I got to a point where I graduated from NYU, went on to get an agent, landed acting jobs and got to a place where I had everything I could have ever wanted…but still wasn’t happy. The way that our culture works is: ‘If I do this, this and this, I’ll be happy.’ First of all ‘happiness’ is a terrible word to throw around. It’s about contentment. Find contentment.”
But Wilson’s lecture isn’t merely a spouting of random proverbs and nuggets of wisdom. Everything he has said — whether it be about his acting career, his teachers, and the Bahá’í Faith of his childhood — has all been leading up to a final and powerful crescendo: the existence of a god.
“I was an atheist out of rebellion. But in the back of my mind I had always wondered. My peers at NYU would always roll their eyes when I asked them if they believed in God, and they would respond, ‘Well, I kind of believe in God.’ You can’t kind of believe in God. God either exists or doesn’t, and it’s the most important question human beings can ask themselves. For me it was the ultimate question, and eventually I returned to the Bahá’í Faith.
“My point is not to convert you to Bahá’í. My point, is that it is your duty as a human being to inquire and ask the big questions, and develop a faith of your own. One of my favorite quotes is from Phil Jackson, who remarked ‘God does not have grandchildren. He only has children. So find your own relationship with Him.'”
Applause greets this quote, provoking Wilson to shout: “Oh, I get it. No applause for me through this entire speech, but I mention a quote from another guy and all the sudden…” More laughter.
“How incredible it is,”: he continues seriously, “that an explosion of a tiny ball of matter expands and makes this beautiful creation, this beautiful painting, this masterpiece, this beautiful universe. The Big Bang — now that is God painting on a tapestry and making something magnificent. You can’t just believe in science. You can’t just believe in God. God and science go together. You have to believe in both.”
Wilson is the founder of SoulPancake, a website which he describes as a project devoted to faith, philosophy and creativity.
“My mission and the mission of SoulPancake is to ‘de-lame-ify’ spirituality. Spirituality doesn’t have to be ‘new agey’ fru-fru, and it doesn’t have to be dogmatic and fundamentalist. Spirituality is a conversation about the human experience, and that is what SoulPancake is about. We live in a world that wants you to numb out, be cynical, not make waves and not care. Break out of that. It is not your destiny to numb out. Investigate truth.”
After Wilson leaves the stage, I begin to watch as the students at UNT leave the coliseum. They’re talking, they’re smiling, as if a light bulb has flicked on inside of their heads: Science and faith… Now there’s an idea.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.