I have known Michael Stark for nearly a decade – ever since our undergraduate days at Judson University. Recently Mike wrote an article on “losing his personal relationship with Jesus.” I absolutely love the article and wanted to take a moment to explore that concept a bit further. Thus, I reached out to Mike and he graciously agreed to an interview.
If you wish to see Mike’s full bio, it is located here.
I hope you enjoy his answers as much as I have.
1. You recently wrote a post in which you stated that you self-identify as a Christian even though you don’t have a “personal relationship with Jesus.” Isn’t such a personal
relationship a staple of Christian identity? How are you a Christian if you don’t have
This is a great question. Frankly, it’s one that I am personally still engaging. I believe the evangelical framework would advance a “yes” to your question, but I obviously, as my article states, disagree. Ultimately, the understanding of engagement with God as a personal relationship is rather new, a product of evangelicalism. When you look at history, there are significant strands on experiencing God subjectively, without the interference of others. Experiencing God is something inherently subjective. I don’t criticize those who profess to have a wonderful “personal relationship” with God. If that works for them, then great! It just isn’t working for me anymore.
I still identify as a Christian because I continue to be captivated by the narrative of Jesus and the life of love Jesus lived. I do not deny the central creeds. In fact, I find the creeds quite meditative. I simply cannot look at God as a person in a relationship form. It lets me down & makes me feel inadequate, a failure in a relationship. This is the antithesis of the fulfillment that one can experience in Christianity.
2. What role does community play in your faith? Do you practice Christian community? If so, how?
Community is where I experience God the most. If God is Trinity, then I like to think of God-Self-Others as a relational Trinity. That is to say, those aspects participate in community in a manner that is mutually beneficial and sacrificial. I see God’s love in people, and hopefully in myself. When I see people move past their differences – be it economic, political, whatever – and foster a deeper understanding of love, there is no better example of community and Christianity that I can think of. So while I “go to church”, church rarely seems to be communal. I experience community in the relationships I have and the sacrifice I see people have towards one another. This is love, which binds us all.
3. You have co-founded an online with Joshua Dembicki named Inviting Liberation. Why did you choose this name?
This is a loaded question. For me personally, Inviting Liberation started with an idea to bring together Christians who practiced Christianity a little “outside the box.” In fact, the original name I had considered for the magazine, before collaborating with Josh, was “The Unboxed God.” Ultimately, I was seeing people in evangelical contexts wanting more from their Christianity than what is traditionally offered from the church on the corner. Much of that has impacted my new experience with God outside of the realm of having a personal relationship. I knew I wanted the site to be communal in its endeavor, and diverse in its thought and background to help others better experience God-Self-Others in a way that was subjectively relevant. Essentially, it was an invitation to ponder, to experience, community in a new way.
Ultimately, I asked Josh if he wanted to collaborate. Long story short, he had been working on a very similar idea, one called Inviting Liberation. We decided to found the endeavor together, and work with seven original contributors to advance the project. I’ll let Josh’s words in his article on liberation speak for the name (see here
), because the term liberation was ultimately his inspiration, and he speaks to it much better than I. I could not be more blessed than to have Josh as a partner in this project, and I’m a better person because of his friendship.
4. What is your vision for Inviting Liberation? What is your intended audience?
Our tagline is “illuminating beauty, inspiring compassion, igniting transformation.” In our earliest talks, Josh & I recognized a dissonance and fracturing of communities based on theology and opinion. We live in a world polarized by constructed terms like “liberal” and “conservative.” Our goal is to bring together and foster the features in our motto, and see those feature in the holistic community of God-Self-Others.
We don’t really have an “intended audience.” As you might expect, this makes marketing a bit more difficult. Yet take a look at our authors. We’re diverse, and intentionally so. One reader might read something I write and profoundly disagree, yet find engagement with something else another contributor wrote. This is the point. The “Inviting” in our name is intentional, and that’s what we want to be, an invitation to anyone who wants to engage with our contributors and learn together. We want to embody words like with and together, because those are the words that communities should embody. In our first month, we’ve received tremendous feedback, both in the number of visitors to Inviting Liberation, and in the positive response we have received in response to our articles. This is a testament to the amazing group of people we have collaborating with us.
5. You are a Kierkegaard scholar. Why did you choose Kierkegaard and how has his work shaped your faith?
Nate, you’re a man of loaded questions. I’ll answer in part by deferring to an article I wrote in RELEVANT a few years ago (see here
). Kierkegaard was perhaps the first thinker who helped me understand that I need to relate to God subjectively and in a manner that is significant for me. The word subjective is a bit provocative for some Christians, likely because of its not-so-fair association with relativism. What Kierkegaard ultimately wants from his readers is to have an existential experience with God. Kierkegaard is less concerned about being correct, or having theological debates. Instead, he desires each person “appropriate” the Christian themes of love and faith in a way that makes sense for them. For Kierkegaard, Christianity is so much greater than having “objective truth.” It’s about relating to objective truth in a subjectively captivating sense. I find that freeing, and it develops my selfhood in a way that makes room for mistakes, and thus empathy, all while pursuing healthiness with God. In a way, Kierkegaard was the first person to invite me to a liberating view of God and Self.
6. If you were going to recommend one book for someone to begin studying Kierkegaard, what would you suggest?
I’m asked this question a lot. I have many answers, all of which depend on the person who is asking. My personal favorite is Kierkegaard’s most academic work, Concluding Unscientific Postscript
, where Kierkegaard’s pseudonym wrestles with the idea of faith in relation to epistemology and personal choice. Yet, I often recommend the short essay, The Present Age.
In that text, Kierkegaard criticizes the media, its messages, and how we all buy into the idea that those behind the media know what we want. He emphasizes the role of the individual, and how that role is reduced by abstract rhetoric in media. I also strongly recommend Works of Love
. There, Kierkegaard unpacks the Christian command to love one’s neighbor as yourself. I’ve never read such a captivating and existentially challenging book, ultimately leading me to an understanding of love that I would likely never know outside of Kierkegaard’s influence.
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