Liberated from Literalism

I met Rob Mueller because of our association in Mission Presbytery, a consortium of Presbyterian churches in south Texas. I quickly grew to admire many things about him: his openness to other faiths, his commitment to justice, and his nearly three-decade devotion to a bilingual congregation on San Antonio’s westside. Eventually, we joined in writing a book entitled Neighborhood Church: Transforming Your Congregation into a Powerhouse for Mission. The Co-moderators of the Presbyterian Church (USA) chose it as “Study Book of the Year” for our denomination in 2019. It was a great experience, not just the creative birthing, but how my partnership with Rob changed me. In that process, I learned that the expansiveness of his faith had not always been present. He, like anyone with spiritual courage, struggled to be where he is today. Here he shares the evolution of his views on Christian scripture, an excerpt from the book The Smile on a Dog: Retrieving a Faith That Matters, downloadable for free at this link.

Reverend Rob Mueller with Ruling Elder Vilmarie Cintrón-Olivieri and Reverend Cindy Kohlmann, Co-Moderators of the 223rd General Assembly, Presbyterian Church (USA)

At age 16, I had a powerful and life-rearranging conversion to Christ. I gave myself and my future to God at the altar of my best friend’s Pentecostal church. Seeking fellowship, I attended my girlfriend’s Evangelical Free Church youth group and started opening the scripture with studies produced by the Navigators. These fellowships instilled in me a desire to devour the scripture and steeped me in a doctrine of biblical inerrancy. They told me that the essential meaning and purpose of the scripture was to lead us to personal salvation. At the time, it was a powerful and animating message for me. I swallowed it; I believed in it. I developed such a fanatical daily discipline of reading and studying the Word that my parents worried I had joined a cult!

In college, I joined the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, continued with a Navigators men’s study, and joined an ad hoc Tuesday night prayer group. The prayer group was wildly ecumenical, including folks from Greek Orthodox, Catholic, Evangelical, Baptist, nondenominational, and mainline traditions. We would pray, share, and discuss our faith lives. The deep relationships I developed with Christians of varying perspectives opened me up to new ways of looking at scripture. My friend Matt English, a deeply-rooted Presbyterian, introduced me to the persistent thread through scripture that presents the divine imperative for justice. This thread expressed a concern for collective salvation more than personal salvation. It viewed God’s activity as transformative of society and not simply of individuals.

InterVarsity introduced me to Ron Sider’s Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, a book that turned my world on its head! For the first time, I began to understand that the Kingdom of God was not just about me and Jesus, but about how the world around us should look. Another friend introduced me to Sojourners magazine, the reflections of justice-oriented evangelicals in inner city Washington, D.C., Sojourners helped me build bridges between these two often opposing theological camps.

I read biblical scholarship from a historical-critical perspective. In my Sociology of Religion class, I read Peter Berger’s The Sacred Canopy, and discovered how we set up certain unassailable truths to act as a canopy of meaning over us, while in reality, all of those “unassailable truths” can be critiqued and even changed. This discovery began to pry open the rigid frameworks I had inherited from conservative influences and prepared the way for a significant shift in my view of scripture and how it acquires authority.

My seminary education helped me to identify and appreciate the diversity of voices within the scriptures, even how they critiqued one another. Biblical inerrancy no longer worked for me. Gospel parallels revealed the many differences in Gospel details, and I learned that factual historicity was not the dominant concern of Gospel authors. Rather, the effort to communicate meaning was central. The Bible became a library of books assembled by diverse writers over thousands of years. These writings were shaped by their particular places and times in history. They were still “inspired” by the Spirit of God, but not dictated word by word, detail by detail. New Testament scholar Marcus Borg helped me realize that a story could still convey truth and meaning without being factual.

My most challenging hurdle during seminary was the exclusive claim by many in the Christian faith that salvation is only through Jesus. Today, I have a completely different understanding of certain “exclusivist scriptures.” When Jesus says, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life, no one comes to the Father except through me,” I believe he is inviting us into the pattern of death and resurrection he exemplified. Jesus’s “Way” is the surrendering of our ego, a dying to self, so that we may discover our unity with others in God for an abundant new life.

I have encountered this wholeness in other people of profound faith who do not share my same tradition. Interfaith conversations now enrich me; at an earlier time, they would have simply been arguments in an attempt to convert the other person to my way. The writings of Thich Nhat Hanh, Anthony de Mello, Thomas Merton, John Philip Newell and Richard Rohr, helped me build bridges between my tradition and other faiths. They speak a language I can understand.

Today, when uncertainties or challenges to my understanding of God arise, I delight in being stretched into new ways of thinking. Together with Meister Eckhart “I pray to God to be rid of God” because every attempt I make to understand God is flawed and limited, so I must forever open myself to the God I don’t yet know or understand.

And so, my journey continues!

You can connect with Rob on Facebook, Divine Redeemer’s website, or their YouTube channel.

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