What Rainn Wilson Knows About God

You might not think of going to the actor from The Office for spiritual guidance, but you really should.

Color illustration of a woman in blue water with sun rays beaming down around her
Illustration by Jan Buchczik

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Seattle has gone through several big transformations in the past few decades. Today, it is known for Amazon, Microsoft, fancy coffee, and enormous fortunes. In the 1990s, it was a cool destination for countercultural 20-somethings who liked grunge rock. In the ’60s and ’70s, it was a remote, rainy city dominated by Boeing, albeit with a vital arts community and a lot of spiritual seekers.

That last version of Seattle is the soil from which the actor Rainn Wilson sprang—as did I. Over lunch in Boston in April, we discovered that we had weirdly parallel lives: With less than two years separating us in age, we grew up a few miles apart in lower-middle-class Seattle neighborhoods. We both had parents who were professional artists. We were both serious classical musicians, specializing in maligned instruments—he played the bassoon; I played the French horn. We were both raised in very religious homes: I as a Christian, and he in the Baha’i faith.

From this odd cultural stew emerged Wilson’s offbeat comedy, made famous by the character Dwight Schrute in the hit absurdist television comedy The Office. (By that time, I had a part in my own absurdist drama, running a think tank in Washington, D.C.) Wilson’s background also planted the seeds of his belief in the power of religion and faith, which is the subject of Soul Boom: Why We Need a Spiritual Revolution. In this new book, which is part metaphysical autobiography and part spiritual how-to guide, Wilson writes about how faith saved him from a witch’s brew of anxiety, despair, loneliness, depression, and addiction. He offers readers this path through a world beset with all the same problems he suffered.

Wilson told me how faith—including traditional religions in which adherents worship the divine (whom he calls “The Notorious G.O.D.”)—gives us what we all crave: “The bonds of community. A shared purpose. Transcendence. A concept of the sacred. The idea that we are more than our bodies, and that service to others is the highest form of worship.” Also, he added, “potlucks.”

Soul Boom is a practical book, in that it makes the case for how faith and spirituality, when practiced seriously, can raise happiness through those benefits he listed for me. (Wilson backed up his argument by sending me links to research on this topic, such as this survey from the Pew Research Center.) If that were the extent of his argument, you might be tempted to observe that you could get much the same earthly perks from a 12-step program or by joining the local Rotary club. But you’d be missing the book’s real power—its observations about the unique nature of experiencing the divine.

First, Wilson shows, the faith quest is not about finding the truth, but about being found by it. His own story involves wandering away from the beliefs of his youth until he was hunted down by the divine. As a young actor in New York, he told me, he tried to “escape anything and everything to do with spirituality, morality, religion, and, most especially, God.” He failed in this escape attempt. As the years passed and the misery mounted, he was pulled involuntarily toward the One, with whom he now has a “bone-deep relationship.”

“Being found” is a strikingly common description in many religious traditions of how transcendence occurs. As the Anglican minister John Newton wrote in “Amazing Grace,” arguably the most famous Christian hymn of all time, “I once was lost, but now am found, / Was blind, but now I see.” In 1890, the poet Francis Thompson likened the phenomenon to being pursued by “the hound of heaven.”

For scholars, to allow oneself to “be found” relates to “trait openness” (an openness to new ideas and experiences) as well as to “epistemic humility” (the recognition that one might not be right or have all the answers). Both of these qualities are positively associated with happiness: Life is more fun and interesting when we find things to learn, and less stressful when we aren’t trying to defend our prejudices at every turn. Soul Boom is a master class in these two qualities—Wilson stresses that the key to love, both earthly and divine, is to be available and humble.

Wilson also observes—correctly, in my view—that a proper transcendental journey is based not on finding the right answers but in contemplating the proper questions. Much aversion to religion comes from the stultifying practice of memorizing answers to dogmas, in which a typical response to any puzzling or distressing issue is “Because that’s how God made it.” Many faith traditions at their root, however, emphasize the contemplation of difficult questions to attain greater enlightenment. Zen Buddhism, for example, relies on koans, which are paradoxical questions or statements that yield wisdom when deeply considered.

In conversation, Wilson is full of his own koans, such as “Why is there a universe instead of nothing at all?,” “How would the world work if there were no suffering?,” and “Why did God create the emu?” The point is not to be convinced by someone else’s answers, but to become comfortable in your own contemplation of these questions, and to let the answers find you (perhaps you will hear the hounds of heaven barking).

True to his Seattle roots, Wilson’s treatise could be called transgressive in a society that is rapidly secularizing. It’s also something of an anomaly from a member of an industry that resists cosmic truths and moral rules. “The comedy misfits of L.A. never really knew what to do with one of their own that keeps talking about God and faith and spirituality,” he told me. “It’s the epitome of uncool.”

Although Soul Boom makes the case for faith, Wilson never argues that all of our problems will be solved if we simply confess and follow a religion. Throughout history, he acknowledges, people have created mischief and misery in the name of religion. But, as he sees it, this is a problem with people, not faith. To make the point, he ends his book by proposing a brand-new religion, which he calls Soul Boom—the Religion™ that takes all the best characteristics of other faiths, as he sees them, and leaves out the rest. Wilson’s credo includes a higher power, an afterlife, prayer, community, and an identifiable code of morality—with an emphasis on love, compassion, service, and purpose.

For me, this “best of” list provides the greatest benefit of the book. Wilson isn’t trying to convert me from my Catholicism to Soul Boom, or even to his own beloved Baha’i. He is offering to convert me to my own faith in its purest loving form, for my own good and that of the world. What does he request in return for this blessing? “The only requirement,” he said, adopting his signature Dwight Schrute deadpan, “is my face tattooed on your buttock.”