Rainn Wilson, known more commonly by his alter ego Dwight Schrute, the hilarious character he played for nine seasons on NBC's "The Office," has quietly been working on a project that tries to connect philosophy to pop culture, a website that merges metaphysical questions and creative processes into the current of daily life. The project is known as SoulPancake.com, which carries the following tagline on its home page:
"Our brain batter of art, culture, science, philosophy, spirituality and humor is designed to open your mind, challenge your friends, and feel damn good."
As Wilson describes it, SoulPancake is "a social networking site; it’s a meeting place for people interested in discussing life’s big questions and having conversations about them.” SoulPancake contains videos, creative challenges, conversation forums and much more.
Wilson himself has undergone something of a spiritual piligrimage. Though he grew up in a home magnanimous to all kinds of religious sensibilities (as a child, Wilson was a member of the Bahá'í faith), he began, as an adult, to refuse religion and deny the existence of God. He threw himself into acting and began to see immense success. But something was missing. Like so many who experience the delights of the world, it wasn't enough. As he told Big Think in 2011, "I felt a yearning; I came to a crossroads. I hit bottom in a way. I was really unhappy and realized that I just wanted something more from the experience of being alive . . . I was doing great plays, and it wasn’t changing the world. I was getting good agents and doing film and tv, and I wasn't happier.”
SoulPancake seems to be the outer footprint of Wilson's inner journey, the result of his hunger to gain "more from the experience of being alive." In the site's conversation forums, readers can discuss inquiries that cover every conceivable topic, from God's existence, to the nature of reality, to questions such as, "What image is holy to you?" and "What would you write in your guide to life?" The "activities" section provides short prompts for essays or other projects. For example, one activity titled "American Brand Stand" asks:
Branding. For a company, it's golden, it's the standout colors that mentally link you to their product or the catchy jingle that you can't get out of your head. Branding is the act of reducing something large to something small and memorable. For people though, branding can be crushing. For the brainiac that goes to college and is surrounded by brainiacs or the pageant queen who turns less heads as age becomes a factor--branding can cause a tail spin...but it can also lead to liberation.
Write about a time you broke your 'brand' and felt completely free.
SoulPancake is intriguing for a number of reasons. It's nice to see someone as high-profile as Rainn Wilson (in the milieu of Hollywood, no less) engage a project so spiritually and philosophically directed. But it's not interesting merely because he's a celebrity; Wilson strikes me as very intelligent and very much interested in the questions that, from time to time, leave all of us turning toward the skies and yearning for some kind of response. His interviews, as well as the content on SoulPancake, indicate someone who cares deeply about living thoughtfully and intentionally. Though he and I would not share the same opinion about Jesus or the Catholic Church, I think he, in his own way, is attempting to invite people into the practice of discernment, into a life that is authentic, holistic, and spiritually courageous.
Whether SoulPancake delivers on those intentions is, I think, another matter. Right now, I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, there's some very good content that provokes thoughtfulness and creativity. I enjoy roaming through the "Conversations" section to see the variety of questions and responses. The richness of humanity is on display, and for the most part, the respondents are charitable and polite. On the other hand, I wonder: Can the big questions of philosophy and theology be crowdsourced effectively? How do SoulPancake participants take into account the role of philosophical and theological expertise and the wisdom of landmark minds, thinkers like Socrates and Aquinas, or Confucious and Descartes?
I suppose my questions are precisely the kind that Wilson would encourage me to post on SoulPancake. I just might...