What happens after we die? Do we truly have free will? Such mysteries have plagued history’s greatest minds for millennia, and a new podcast from Reza Aslan and Rainn Wilson is gathering some of the world’s foremost thinkers to delve into these and other of life’s biggest questions.
“Metaphysical Milkshake,” which debuted June 15 from podcast producer Kast media, sees the scholar and actor discuss weighty topics with contemporary thought leaders, bringing humor and insight to a new subject each week.
Aslan, a professor of creative writing at the University of California, Riverside, and best-selling author of “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth,” has long explored belief and the intangible as a scholar of religions. He met Wilson, best known for his Emmy-nominated role as Dwight Schrute on the NBC series “The Office,” at an event to bring attention to the plight of the Baháʼí, a religion facing ongoing persecution in Iran and of which Wilson is a devout member.
The unlikely duo struck up a friendship, finding they both enjoyed discussing big ideas about the nature of existence during their occasional meetings over breakfast in L.A., and decided to start a podcast together.
“We very much see the world through the same kind of lens,” Aslan said. “We’re both spiritual people, but we are also very rational and scientific people and like to break down barriers that often arise between science and religion or faith and reason.”
A version of “Metaphysical Milkshake” existed years prior as a short-lived web series seeing Wilson discuss existential quandaries with celebrities from the back of his van. That iteration was created by SoulPancake, a media company founded by Rainn in 2009 with the goal of celebrating humanity and exploring what it means to be human. While Wilson sees the podcast, which is also co-produced by SoulPancake, as an extension of the original series, he said it’s a new and distinct endeavor.
“This was really the show that I’ve been wanting to do the whole time, and it’s super exciting for me,” Wilson said. “This is my dream show. I have a brilliant co-host in Dr. Reza Aslan, and at the same time, we get to interview some of the greatest minds and thinkers of the century. But we don’t take ourselves too seriously, and we have a lot of fun along the way.”
Such great minds include author Malcom Gladwell in the inaugural episode discussing the tendency for humans to cause harm with well-intentioned technologies, public speaker Charles Eisenstein musing on money and its role in shaping society, and physician Gabor Maté on the connection between trauma and addiction.
“Part of the reason why I wanted to do this podcast with Rainn is kind of a selfish one, which is that it forces me to go back to my youth a little bit and to ask the kinds of questions that I used to ask when I was younger and that would keep me up all night,” Aslan said. “And now we get to do that with some of the smartest people in the world.”
Aslan traces his occupation with such metaphysical conundrums to fleeing Iran in his youth during the Iranian revolution and witnessing firsthand the power of religion to transform societies for both good and bad.
“I’ve always thought of myself as a spiritual being inhabiting a material body long before I even understood what that phrase even meant,” Aslan said. “These kinds of questions are questions that animate me and that have always been a part of how I’ve defined my very sense of self and my place in the world.”
Wilson also finds a spiritual connection to his quest for answers to the meaning of life, noting in his Baháʼí faith, science and religion are intertwined, and harmony arises from an understanding of both.
“I was also always the kid at like the ‘Dungeons and Dragons’ game who was like, ‘Hey, what do you think happens when we die?’ or wanting to talk about God on a first date, which will clear a room fast,” he said.
While many of the questions broached in the podcast are unanswerable, the enduring mystery is part of the allure for Aslan and Wilson.
“The path is more important than the destination, and the question is more important than the answer,” Aslan said. “The act of asking the question and pursuing the answer in and of itself is enough to really experience the fullness of what life is supposed to be.”
Listeners are also invited to participate in “Metaphysical Milkshake” by sending their own big questions, and some will be invited to join episodes as a guest. Listeners are able to engage with the hosts through social media, and Aslan and Wilson hope the podcast will inspire listeners to engage in these conversations in their own lives.
“These are the universal human questions that have been around since the dawn of time — they’re questions that are distinctly human, and the question that underlies all of this is: What does it mean to be a human being?” Wilson said. “I hope that people come away entertained, but also thinking about a topic they hadn’t considered on an altogether different level.”
(Photos courtesy of Dennys Ilic.)