Modern views on the value of dreams are fairly conservative. Even in the church our tendency is to look with skepticism upon claims that God has spoken to someone in a dream. Yet to the one who has had a numinous experience and received divine guidance in dreams, they are evidence of a connection with an altogether different reality.
Sources which witness to a high regard for dreams include the Old Testament, the New Testament, the early church, non-Western, apositivistic cultures, and, increasingly, modern medicine, especially the field of psychiatry. In this paper we will examine briefly each of these sources, as well as some personal, anecdotal evidence, in keeping with the tradition of notable authors such as Freud and Jung.
Finally we will attempt to show how dreams may be a viable means of achieving growth and breakthroughs in one's personal relationship with God, within the context of spiritual direction. Dream interpretation will be considered both from an archetypal-symbolic perspective and from a personal-historical perspective.
The Old Testament
It was taken for granted in the Old Testament that God spoke to people in dreams. Much of the thinking among the ancients bore witness to a belief in another, higher world, in which dwelt God(s), angels and demons, all of whom could communicate with persons in this realm. Often the dream was meant to convey some essential information about the future to the dreamer. For example, the patriarch Joseph dreamt of a day when the sun, the moon and the stars would bow before him, which was understood to mean his family would be humbled before him (Gen. 37:9). This, of course, came to fulfillment when Israel, in its hunger, went down to Egypt for grain, where Joseph was second only to Pharaoh.
Dreams were given to non-Hebrew leaders, as well, in keeping with the tradition that governments are in the control of the Lord. For example, Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, was given a dream of a statue made of various metals, which was then cut to pieces by a rock cut from a great mountain, which foretold the reign of the Messiah and his kingdom over the kingdoms of the earth (Dan. 2). The words of Daniel are of great interest to this particular study, as he said: “This mystery has been revealed to me... that you should understand your inmost thoughts” (Dan. 2:30). Not only was the dream given to make known the future (v. 29), but also in order that the king would grow towards a knowledge of self, one might say, to probe the depths of his unconscious mind.2
In these and in many other examples in the Old Testament, God used dreams to communicate to people. Often it was to reveal the future, while at other times it was to reveal Himself. In either case, a person received guidance and grew in his or her knowledge of the divine person through the dream.
The New Testament
Far from being limited to ancient cultures, dreams continued to be a means of revelation and divine communication in the times of the New Testament, as well. Perhaps it is the state of receptivity one achieves in sleep which makes it suitable for God to speak under such circumstances, and to offer guidance to those in need.
Joseph, husband of Mary, was given various dreams which helped him and his family. It was in a dream that the Lord's angel spoke to him and told him to take Mary as his wife, as the child in her womb was not of fornication but from the Holy Spirit (Matt. 1:20). Later, he was warned by the Lord's angel to flee to Egypt, to protect Jesus from Herod (Matt. 2:13). Later still, an angel of the Lord came to him to instruct him to return to Israel, when Herod had died (Matt. 2:19-20). Dreams, it might be said, were a primary means of divine guidance for the holy family in its early days. But, one might argue, this was a very special family. Let us therefore consider another example.
Peter, while lodging with Simon the tanner at Jaffa, saw three times in a vision a great sheet being let down from the sky with all kinds of birds and beasts, which, though considered unclean, he was commanded to kill and eat (Acts 10:11-13). The interpretation was also given, that, since God had cleansed the Gentiles, Peter ought to preach the Good News among them as well (v.15). Some might say there is a great difference between a vision and a dream, but in the New Testament, both speak of a non-physical reality intruding upon the awareness at an inner, psychic level.3
The Greek word used to describe the dreams Joseph had is οναρ (“onar”), which is used for those visions had in the sleeping state which are remembered upon waking, while the word used to describe the trance of Peter is οραμα (“horama”), a word which is used to translate both dreams and visions from the Hebrew. This latter word does not make a distinction between the waking and sleeping state but simply denotes a non-physical appearance.4 Thus, in the New Testament, both visions of angels and dreams in the night denoted a common contact with another world, the non-material realm.
The Early Church
Dreams in the early Christian movement offered guidance and knowledge of the future, as they did in the experience of biblical figures. It was taken almost for granted that dreams were a primary means of God's communication both to the church and to individuals within the body of Christ. It was with the introduction of Aristotelean antisupernaturalism by way of Aquinas, in the thirteenth century, that Scripture and reason managed to displace the living revelations of God.5
Most early church fathers believed implicitly in the value of dreams. Tertullian, for example, said, “Beyond a doubt the greater part of mankind derive their knowledge of God from their dreams.”6 In the account of the martyrdom of St. Polycarp, the disciple of John saw his pillow catch fire in premonition of his own death in the circus.7 Meanwhile, Origen refuted Africanus' offense at the power of the Holy Spirit in having seized Daniel, stating that God had acted in such fashion with many saints, having “favored (them) with divine dreams and angelic appearances and... inspirations.”8 It would seem that the neo-Platonic views of the early church allowed for divine communication in this manner.
In the traditions of apositivistic societies, dreaming was and is highly prized as a valid means of receiving divine guidance. The world-view of many non-Western cultures allows for non-linear, intuitive thinking, which sidesteps our traditional ratio-empirical paradigm. It is in this twilight of the conscious, at this juncture with the vast collective unconscious that images maintain their power to define reality.
The ancient epic Gilgamesh, dated to at least 2000 B.C., which describes the hero's struggle over self and other, provides guidance to the protagonist in the form of a series of dreams.9 Chief Seattle, an American Indian, believed dreams are revealed to people “in the solemn hours of the night by the Great Spirit.”10 If one loses the ability to dream, it is thought by some American Indians, one's soul is doomed to wander, for dreams provide a necessary, guiding light.11
Ancient East Indian philosophers wrote in the Upanishads that the dream is a state between living and death, where illumination is given to the individual in order to further the progress of the soul.12 Other cultures, such as the Chinese, and the African, have similarly high regard for dreaming.
Interest in dreams in modern medicine began largely with Freud's exploration of this “royal road to the unconscious.” He himself turned from the more accepted “rational” views on the matter when he discovered that many of his patients' illnesses could be traced to problems encountered in childhood and relived in dreams through symbols. He refers to this process as an integral function of the unconscious mind: “primitive modes of work suppressed during the day participate in the formation of the dream.”13
Freud's emphasis on the role of sexual tensions and his belief in dreaming as wish-fulfillment limited the applicability of his theory somewhat. His ideas were modified and extended by Jung, who believed that dreams were not only concerned with historical trauma experienced in the patient's life, but that they could also reveal information about the present and future state of the psyche.14
Dreams, according to Jung, play a compensatory role, as well, providing a stage for impoverished parts of the psyche to manifest their demands against better-formed aspects of the personality. Fundamental, or basic needs such as emotional contact may arise in symbolic form in the dream to contest an individual's overly rationalistic, cold-hearted nature. A man might dream of a lone child wanting to play catch, for example.
The interpretation of dreams may take place within the context of Jung's theory of universal archetypes, although he is wary to apply any meaning without the patient's acceptance of such. In this, Jung contrasts with Freud, who insisted on the universality of symbols and their interpretation.15 With Jung, amplification of dream-symbols is achieved by seeking from the patient associations from his or her own life which the symbols evoke.
Thus, while a certain universality may be suggested within Jung's theory of archetypes and the collective unconscious, he leaves room for individuality and personal histories to affect dream interpretation. In some cases, dreams are transparent and their meaning obvious to the context of the particular patient, while in other cases, dreams are opaque. It is in the latter case that one ought to seek archetypal, or shared meaning for the symbols which are presented to the mind.16
The baser nature of humanity may manifest itself in dreams as an animal-symbol, such as a horse, which Jung associated with the animus/anima. Participation in these shared symbols occurs in a manner hidden from the surface, a kind of racial instinct. The energies which such symbols embody reflect the evolution of society through various stages.17
Both Freud and Jung made use of their patients' dreams as well as their own to form their theories. Jung's dream of God having a bowel movement on the church seemed to him a key communication from the inner psyche, which is also the seat of God.
Men of science have also had revelatory experiences while dreaming. Kékulé, who was trying to elucidate the structure of benzene, dreamt one night of a serpent biting its own tail, from which he concluded that the correct arrangement was a ring.
Not long ago, my wife, who is a devout Christian, had a dream in which she saw herself folding her uncle's bed in half. Soon after, we found out that he had contracted TB, and he died within months. Besides this premonitory dream, given to a believer in Christ, God has revealed Himself through dreams to other, non-Christian people of my acquaintance. One of my mother's friends, who grew up in a Moslem household, saw Jesus in her dream, following which she began attending church.
I, too, have seen God in a dream. He appeared as a great sheet of light made of millions of tiny points with an irresistible attraction like some giant magnet, into which my own tiny point of light flew, called from within my spirit-body. This was followed by a vision to preach Christ to the Moslems, in which I saw a radio, and a clock set at 11:15, perhaps setting a time limit.
Spiritual Direction & Conclusion
If spiritual direction aims to further one's relationship to the Almighty,18 then dreams cannot be ignored as a means by which God both guides and reveals Himself. An integral part of relationship is communication, therefore a spiritual director helps the directee to discern instances of divine articulation. In addition to hearing God's voice through prayer in the form of lasting peace experienced in response to questions asked,19 a person may experience God through his or her dreams. The role of the director is to remain open to such a possibility, especially where the revelation is direct and clear. Such occurrences may be integral to the growth of the individual, providing acceleration to the process. One ought to remain cautious of seeing revelation in every dream, though. Often, a dream may be simply mental housekeeping or compensatory in nature.
Dreams, we have seen, were taken seriously as a means of God's communication by various communities, including those of the Old and New Testament, the early church, non-Western cultures and modern psychiatry. Spiritual direction may benefit from paying heed to what is being said in dreams, both to help ameliorate one's relationship to God, as well as providing guidance for the mental well-being of the individual.
Barry, William and Connolly, William. The Practice of Spiritual Direction. Harper, San Francisco, 1981.
Bryant, Christopher. Jung and the Christian Way. Seabury, Minneapolis, 1983.
Freud, Sigmund. Dream Psychology. Coles, Toronto, 1980.
Heidel, Alexander. The Gilgamesh Epic and Old Testament Parallels. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1949.
Kelsey, Morton T. Dreams, A Way to Listen to God. Paulist Press, New York, 1978.
Kelsey, Morton T. God, Dreams and Revelation. Augsburg Publishing, Minneapolis, 1974.
McLuhan, T.C. Touch the Earth. Promontory Press, New York, 1971.
Roberts, Alexander and Donaldson, James, eds. Epistle Concerning the Martyrdom of the Holy Polycarp, in The Ante-Nicene Fathers . Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1951: V, Vol. 1, p. 40.
Sanford, John A. Dreams and Healing. Paulist Press, New York, 1978.
Wolf, William J. The Religion of Lincoln. The Seabury Press, New York, 1963.
Woods, Ralph L., ed. The World of Dreams. Random House. New York, 1947.
1The Religion of Lincoln by William J. Wolf, The Seabury Press, New York, 1963, p. 29.
2Dreams and Healing by John A. Sanford, Paulist Press, New York, 1978, p. 15.
3God, Dreams and Revelation by Morton T. Kelsey, Augsburg Publishing, Minneapolis, 1974, p. 81.
4Ibid, pp. 81-82.
5Dreams, A Way to Listen to God by Morton T. Kelsey, Paulist Press, New York, 1978, pp. 76-78.
6“A Treatise on the Soul,” Ch. XLVII, by Tertullian.
7Epistle Concerning the Martyrdom of the Holy Polycarp, in The Ante-Nicene Fathers ed. by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1951: V, Vol. 1, p. 40.
8God, Dreams and Revelation by Morton T. Kelsey, p. 112. The Reverend says, “Origen saw the dream, not as physical perception, but as the presentation of symbols that reveal the nature of the non-physical world.”
9The Gilgamesh Epic and Old Testament Parallels by Alexander Heidel, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1949.
10Touch the Earth by T.C. McLuhan, Promontory Press, New York, 1971, p. 30.
11Dreams and Healing by John A. Sanford, p.6.
12The World of Dreams edited by Ralph L. Woods, Random House. New York, 1947.
13Dream Psychology by Sigmund Freud, Coles, Toronto, 1980, pp. 191-92.
14Jung and the Christian Way by Christopher Bryant, Seabury, Minneapolis, 1983, p. 21.
15Ibid, p. 26.
16Ibid, p. 27.
17Ibid, p. 31.
18The Practice of Spiritual Direction by William Barry and William Connolly, Harper, San Francisco, 1981, p. 7.
19Ibid, p. 110.