The Fathers understood our relation to God as centrally, essentially, literary and interpretative. Knowing God, they believed, comes in knowing Jesus, the Word of God; and knowing Jesus comes in knowing the Scriptures, the words of God. Consequently, everything depends on how the Bible is read.
This wisdom is epitomized in a remarkable prayer near the end of Eriugena's Periphyseon:
It is nowhere more proper to seek you than in your words, so too there is no place where you may be more openly found than in them. You abide there and you bring those who love and seek you therein. There you prepare spiritual banquets of true knowledge for your elect; making a passage therein, you minister to them. O Lord, what is this passage of yours other than the ascent through the infinite stages of your contemplation? You are always making this kind of passage in the intellects of those seeking and finding you.
For Eriugena—as for Augustine and Maximus, among others of the Fathers—the sacred texts are sacred precisely because they are the divinely-chosen site of God's acting. God abides and acts there, in the movements of Scripture. The Scriptures, therefore, are recognized to be "inspired" not because of anything like "a self-contained character of supernatural accuracy," as Rowan Williams puts it, but because the living God makes a present of them to us and makes himself present to us through them. In Eriugena's phrase, God "makes passage" through each and every passage of Scripture, as well as in the heart and mind of readers who commune with the text. Following God's passing in and through the rises and falls of biblical passages, believers find themselves moved by God with God into God.
Williams describes the Bible as "the territory in which Christians expect to hear God speaking." The trouble is, many of us have learned to treat the Bible the same way we learned to treat the land. Instead of living harmoniously with it, respecting its limits and honoring our common needs, we've abused it, exploiting it for gain. We’re meant to make pilgrimage though the territory of Scripture, not to stake our claim on it. (I say this as someone born and raised in Oklahoma.) The Word moves in the words. And as the Word moves, "highways" are cut into our hearts (Ps. 84.5). To seek God is to follow those paths.
In the light of the Fathers' wisdom, we can see the story of Jesus walking on the water (Mk 6:45-52) as a telling scene, an iconic moment, illustrating how the Scriptures are meant to be read. Leaving the disciples at sea, Jesus ascends the mountain to pray and from that height watches the disciples straining against the winds. As they struggle, he goes out to them, following his compassion, descending like Moses from the glory of the presence of the Lord, intending to "pass them by."
Immediately he made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. After saying farewell to them, he went up on the mountain to pray. When evening came, the boat was out on the sea, and he was alone on the land. When he saw that they were straining at the oars against an adverse wind, he came towards them early in the morning, walking on the sea. He intended to pass them by. But when they saw him walking on the sea, they thought it was a ghost and cried out; for they all saw him and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Then he got into the boat with them and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.
Mark's telling recalls the stories of Moses and Elijah—Moses' transfiguration (Ex. 33:18-23) and Elijah's disfiguration (1 Kg 19:9-14):
Then Moses said, “Now show me your glory.” And the Lord said, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.” Then the Lord said, “There is a place near me where you may stand on a rock. When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen.”
Notice, the same "passing" happens to Elijah, but does not work the same effect—he hides his face:
And the word of the Lord came to him: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He replied, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.” The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave. Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He replied, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.”
In the Gospel, Jesus "passes by" the apostles in the boat, taking on the roles not only of Moses and Elijah, but also the role of the divine glory, doing what only God can do. The disciples are terrified, as Israel was afraid of Moses, as Elijah was afraid of Jezebel. But Jesus does not hide, as God hid from Moses and Elijah or as Moses and Elijah hid themselves from God and the people of God. Instead, he unhides himself, and speaks the word of peace. Seeing his face, they live.
This, then, is the pattern that teaches us how to read the Scriptures life-givingly. When we turn to the biblical text, we turn toward the task of doing what God has asked of us, expecting God to turn toward us. And as we read, we're always in the position of the disciples: we never stand "above the fray," outside the experience; we’re always "at sea," unshored, always suspended over the deep, "straining at the oars," striving, and mostly failing, to overcome the life-breaking pressures of everyday life. Still, we stay at the task, waiting for the Word's "passing."
Of course, we're likely often if not always to be frightened by what we see! Not to put too fine a point on it, but the history of Christian interpretation and my own personal history suggests that we often mistake God for a ghost, a demon—the terrifying projection of our ugliest fears. And that same history suggests that many of us will be tempted to worship that image, either because something in us thrills at the power of the threat and/or because we hope to protect ourselves from that power by cowering before it. But God does not leave us to our illusions, our false impressions. He speaks to us. He shows his face. He makes us acknowledge him. Thanks to the Spirit, reading the words of Scripture leads to reckoning with the Word, and that reckoning, in time, opens out on the delight of recognition.
At the end of this passage, even after Jesus has calmed the winds and joined them in the boat, the disciples remain unsure, distracted, mystified. The disciples in Mark's Gospel, as Nick Cave says, "seem to be in a perpetual fog of misunderstanding, following Christ from scene to scene, with little or no comprehension of what is happening around them." But the truth is that they have been changed, if only slightly and tentatively. However weary, however uncomprehending, they do follow him. They "cross over," taking their place beside Jesus as he does what he came to do. And although they surely do not sense it, slowly, in fits and starts, they are becoming like him, learning to do what he does, not only moved by him but moving with him. And that, needless to say, is what we have to hope is happening to us and in us as we read.
Whatever else it means to say that Scripture is holy, it certainly means it cannot be bent to our purposes, cannot be "resourced" to win arguments, cannot be used to gain leverage over the lives of others. The old children's song had this exactly wrong: the B-i-b-l-e is not ours to possess, and we do not “stand alone on the Word of God.” Instead, as we read, we yield ourselves to the comings and goings of God, allowing ourselves to be moved by the Spirit of the Word in the spirit of the words. And as our hearts are attuned to the Father's, we find that every passage of Scripture holds a "passing by" of the Son whose death has opened the way for us to follow him into life, if only we do not hide our faces.