Reza Aslan and Rainn Wilson’s new podcast “Metaphysical Milkshake” stirs up existential conversation.
By Jessica Weber
What happens after we die? Do we truly have free will? Such mysteries have plagued history’s greatest minds for millennia. Reza Aslan, a professor of creative writing and bestselling author; and actor Rainn Wilson, best known for his portrayal of Dwight Schrute in the hit NBC series “The Office”; are gathering some of the world’s foremost thinkers to delve into these and other of life’s biggest questions on their new podcast “Metaphysical Milkshake.” The show, which debuted June 15 from podcast producer Kast Media, sees the scholar and actor tackle weighty topics with contemporary thought leaders, bringing humor and insight to a new subject each week. Here, Aslan and Wilson discuss how they formed what may seem like an unlikely duo, and what drives their unending search for meaning.
Can you explain the concept of “Metaphysical Milkshake”?
Reza Aslan (RA): “Metaphysical Milkshake” is a podcast in which Rainn and I get to ask some of life’s biggest, most existential questions like: Why are we here? How many universes are there? We’re kind of armchair philosophers, so these are the kinds of questions that rattle around our heads all the time. So, we talk to each other about it a little bit, but we also recognize that we have limited minds when it comes to some of these bigger questions, but we have access to some of the greatest thinkers that are out there. People like Malcolm Gladwell or Adam Grant or Elizabeth Kolbert or Krista Tippett. They use their expertise to help us make sense of some of these big questions.
Where did the name “Metaphysical Milkshake” come from?
Rainn Wilson (RW): I started a digital media company called SoulPancake that has been around now for over 10 years. The original name for SoulPancake was Metaphysical Milkshake. I just liked the name because I love the idea. I love metaphysical conversations, just like Reza said. And I really liked something that had to do with, like, a food item, mixing something together.
RA: Food and existentialism.
RW: Exactly. I think it’s a memorable name. It’s serious, but also kind of silly at the same time, and that’s just how we want to do this podcast.
What is the format of the podcast?
RW: We try and have a theme to every episode, so we’ll start an episode joking around and talking about our ideas around these themes, then we’ll bring in the guest. We ask the guests — kind of on the spot — life’s big questions. We also love to hear from our listeners, and people will call in with their questions or their thoughts, and sometimes we’ll even bring them on the show.
Watch the full interview with Aslan and Wilson.
How did the two of you meet?
RA: Rainn and I have been friends for a while. We’re big fans of each other. We met through an event that was meant to bring attention to the plight of the Baha’i in Iran, which is an almost 200-year-old religion that is essentially illegal in Iran, where the religion was founded. Rainn is a devout Baha’i, so he has taken the plight of the Baha’i in Iran very seriously. The two of us did an event together, and we just kind of hit it off.
What made you decide to do this podcast together?
RA: We just kind of loved to get together and talk about some of these big ideas. We really understood that we very much see the world through the same kind of lens. We’re both spiritual people, but we are both also very rational and scientific people, and we like to break down walls or barriers that often arise between science and religion or faith and reason. And we were having breakfast one day in some dive restaurant when suddenly it occurred to us, we should maybe start recording these conversations. We started sharing that idea with some of our reps, everybody loved the idea, and it just kind of happened from there.
Is this podcast an extension of the former “Metaphysical Milkshake” web series?
RW: Yes and no. This podcast is its own separate project, and it is also a continuation of that show. I did a short-lived show on SoulPancake called “Metaphysical Milkshake” that took place in the back of my van, where I would interview celebrities and try and touch on life’s big questions. But this was really the show that I’ve been wanting to do the whole time. And this is super exciting for me. This is my dream show. I have a brilliant co-host — a brilliant assistant to the regional podcaster 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.
Where did your interest in life’s biggest questions stem from?
RA: I’ve always been really interested in religion and spirituality, mythology, folklore. I didn’t come from a very religious family, but I was born in Iran, and when we left Iran during the Iranian revolution, I had firsthand experience of the power that religion has to transform societies for good and for bad. It’s just kind of always been a part of my identity. I’ve always thought of myself as a spiritual being inhabiting a material body long before I even understood what that phrase meant. These kinds of questions animate me and have always been a part of how I’ve defined my very sense of self and my place in the world.
RW: As a Baha’i, I’ve always been interested in our spiritual search. Baha’is also believe in the harmony of science and religion, so this idea that science and religion are not separate silos, but they’re both expressions of one reality. And I was always the kid, like at the “Dungeons and Dragons” game, who was like, “Hey, what do you think happens when we die?” I was the kid wanting to talk about God on a first date with a girl, which will clear a room fast. I’ve just always been interested in these questions, and I don’t really understand why more people aren’t.
Given your unique backgrounds, does each of you bring something different to the table?
RW: Reza and I have a shared perspective that we are deeply curious about all of these questions — sociological, psychological, personal, artistic, spiritual, intellectual, scientific — all the different ways one can study reality. We’re in agreement on a lot. There are some things we don’t agree on, but that’s not really the point. It’s about the asking of the questions and the exploration. I think we have slightly different skill sets, but we’re on the same mission, and that’s what’s important. It’s kind of like a marriage, isn’t it Reza?
RA: I do feel like sometimes we are married, yes.
RW: I’m your man and wife.