LITTLE ROCK — Millions of television viewers know him as the socially inept salesman Dwight Schrute of The Office. Far fewer might know that Rainn Wilson is a member of the Baha’i faith. Fewer still know much about this growing world religion.
“You know Baha’i sounds weird,” Wilson said. “It must be some kind of weird religion but when you investigate it, it really is a lovely bunch of people. You’re not going to really dig up much strange stuff on the Baha’i faith.”
The actor isn’t shy about talking about his faith. He has chatted about it with Oprah, written about his beliefs for cnn.com and often shares snippets of information with his more than 2 million Twitter followers. He also shared his story with members of the Religion Newswriters Association during a Denver conference recently.
Wilson grew up in the Baha’i faith in what he calls a “bohemian” home.
“I grew up believing the whole world was one family, that all races were one, that men and women were equal ... that science and re-ligion could agree and should agree and that was how God wanted it to be,” he said.
In his 20s, Wilson decided he needed to find God on his own and went on a selfdescribed “crazy spiritual journey” before eventually returning to the faith of his childhood. The Baha’i faith is a spiritual and artistic path he’s passionate about, he said.
“I think faith is something that needs to be lived,” he said. “It’s not something that’s allocated for certain hours of the week. Faith is in works and it’s what you do and how you are in the world and how you treat people.”
The roots of the Baha’i religion began with a Persian merchant, Siyyid Ali-Muhammad, in 1844. Known as The Bab (meaning “gate” or “door” in Arabic), he began sharing religious teachings and pronounced that another messenger of God was to comeafter him to usher in a new age. His claims were rejected by Muslim clerics of the day and The Bab was eventually executed. One of his followers, Baha’u’llah, claimed to have received a revelation from God that he was to be the next messenger and he founded the Baha’i faith. The Bab and Baha’u’llah are greatly revered by members of this faith community. Shrines in their honor are located in or near Haifa in Israel.
Although the faith grew out of an Islamic movement - Babism - it isn’t the same religion as Islam, said Robert Stockman, a Baha’i and instructor of religious studies at DePaul University in Chicago.
“It has the same relationship to Islam that Christianity has to Judaism,” Stockman said. “It builds on many of the basics.”
PERSECUTED IN IRAN
For example, Muslims and Baha’is have an obligation to pray daily but the prayers and scriptures are vastly different. Social teachings also vary greatly, Stockman said. As for their standing in Muslim countries, Stockman said Baha’is have faced persecution in Iran, the land of their founding, since the earliest days of the religion. That persecution continues today, he said, with Baha’is arrested and jailed for practicing their faith.
The religion came to America in the late 1800s and the first national convention was held in 1909 in Chicago. Today, Baha’is can be found around the globe. Stockman said there are about 5 million adherents worldwide and about 160,000 in the United States. Arkansas is also home to small pockets of Baha’is, the largest of which is in the Little Rock area, where a Spiritual Assembly of Baha’is center is located. Dr. Namvar Zohoori, a member of the assembly, said that community has about 120 members.
Zohoori, a fourth-generation Baha’i from Iran, was raised in the faith but he said most followers in the United States have come to the religion after learning about it and studying the teachings of Baha’u’llah. Many are drawn to the religion’s emphasis on unity, he said.
“What people find is a religion that is free of dogma, free of prejudice, that views the whole world as one,” Zohoori said.
Zohoori said a central tenet of the faith is that there is only one God and one religion.
“Even though people call him by different names, there is only one creator of all creation,” he said. “Because of that, we believe that all religion is fundamentally the same because they come from the same source.”
Baha’is believe that Baha’u’llah is the latest in a long line of messengers of God. Those include Abraham, Moses, Buddha, Krishna, Zoroaster, Jesus and Muhammad. Zohoori said Baha’is are taught that each of these messengers was revealed at a specific time and brought God’s message for the era as needed. They each taughtpieces of the same truth, he said. Baha’is also don’t believe divine revelation ended with Baha’u’llah. He taught that he would not be the last of God’s messengers.
The faith has no clergy. Zohoori said Baha’is are each charged with the task of upholding the principles of the faith. The religion is governed by democratically elected board members on the local, national and international level. Each person elected serves for a limited term.
Baha’is don’t have local churches but larger communities have centers for meetings. Baha’i communities meet every 19 days (the faith’s calendar is divided into 19 months of 19 days). On the first day of each month the community gathers for devotions, worship and prayer. They also discuss administrative issues and socialize. Other devotional meetings are held at various times depending on the community. Much of the worship and teaching is carried out in homes.
Wilson and his wife, for example, often held “belief nights” in their homes. People of all faiths would join them for discussion and worship.
“If you wanted to share a poem or a reading that touched you or moved your soul you could. It was pretty awesome,” Wilson said.
Now the couple has a “Soul Saturday” gathering once a month, as well as devotional meetings for teenagers so they can study Baha’i holy writings, as well as scriptures and writing by others. They also work on service projects.
The religion has houses of worship around the world which are open to people of all faiths in keeping with the Baha’i belief in the oneness of religion. They are in Panama, Germany, Uganda, Australia, Western Samoa, India, Chile and Wilmette, Ill. Each building has nine sides, a significant number in the Baha’i faith and one that signifies unity.
“It’s a very accepting community,” Zohoori said. “You will find people of all backgrounds, religions and races ... I can travel to anywhere in the world and look up Baha’is and it’s the same faith. There are no sects, no divisions within the Baha’i faith. We all believe the same thing.”
As for Wilson, even though he’s open about his faith he doesn’t want to become the “poster boy” for the Baha’i faith nor does he want viewers to confuse him with the sometimes dastardly Schrute.
“Dwight sees the world in his own particular way,” Wilson said. “He has his own kind of rules, his own ethics and his own morality and a very skewed, strange way of seeing the world. But it doesn’t really correlate to me being aperson of faith. ... If it’s a great character and a great story, I’m there. Sign me up. I believe that my greatest service to God is entertaining people, making them laugh and telling them stories.”