Electric Dreams

Dreams and Western Religion

Richard Catlett Wilkerson 

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Wilkerson, Richard Catlett (1999 December). Dreams and Western Religion. Electric Dreams 6(12). Retrieved July 13, 2000 from Electric Dreams on the World Wide Web: http://www.dreamgate.com/electric-dreams

Although every major religion began with dream sharing, the practice was eventually banned or restricted to a small group at the top of the hierarchy. Mohammed, for example, banned dream interpretation, but asked his followers to tell him their dreams. In Christianity, only saints were allowed to interpret dreams. Esoterics sporadically revived and experimented with dream sharing, but at their own risk & peril. It was not uncommon, for example, for women to be burnt as witches during the Spanish Inquisition for dream sharing. This story repeats itself in all the axis religions East and West.

Is this mass condemnation a coincidence, or is there something essentially evil about dream sharing? The simple answer seems to be that there is something about the sharing of dreams that initially participates in transformational socio-religious movements, but then once the movement becomes structured, the dreams threaten the interpretive authority of the orthodox hierarchy.

More complex reasons emerge as we study each movement more closely.

Dream sharing is now being re-discovered by many religions, but it has mostly been mediated by the use of dreams in psychology. Esoteric religious practices are now so common place its hard to really call them esoteric anymore. What then can be lifted out of all these secular practices that will define spiritual dreamwork from other forms of dream sharing? The lion's share of this work is still to be done, but there are some pioneers that have begun setting up outposts.

Dreams and the Children of Abraham

A Hebrew Dream Story

Morton Kelsey made the observation that the Old Testament often makes little distinction between visions and dreams. Seen this way, the number of significant dreams increase dramatically, even if just "night visions" are considered. As Kelly Bulkeley point out in _Spiritual Dreaming_, even if these dreams were rhetorical or literary devices instead of actual dreams, the fact that dreams could be used as rhetorical devices points to the obvious conclusion that they were being used all the time in as mediums of the Divine.

God spoke to Abraham through dreams and through dialogue between them Abraham led the Hebrews out of the obscurity of the ancient Tigris-Euphrates River Valley and into a prominent place in history. Dreams continued to guide the people until the time of David, and such stories as Joseph and Pharaoh and Jacob's dream of reconciliation with God are well known, though hundreds more dot the starry landscape of the Bible.

But by the time of David, false prophets were a problem and some forms of dream interpretation were punishable by death. (Deuteronomy 13:1-5) The test of true and false prophesy was rather harsh. Basically anyone could be a prophet and dream interpreter, but if you were wrong just once, you got stoned to death. Even the kings, as they got more and more into trouble, ceased recording their dreams.

By the 6th Century B.C., recorded discussions had begun again about dreams and any prophet worth his/her salt was expected to be open to the divine though them and to be able to interpret them. The key to distinguishing true from false dreams and interpretations had to do with whether of not the Spirit of God was in them. Thus from this time we get Joel's 2:28 famous dream quote:

"Your sons and daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions."

Soon the law passed from inspiration by God to an evaluation by the group. If the dream interpretation was about turning away from the God of Israel, it was simply wrong - and you were put to death. Generally it is felt that part of this law was to protect the Jewish people from the surrounding pagans and other interpreters who used dreams to tell people what they wanted to hear. The dream interpreter had to be one who was open to God's revelation and stood a little above the rest of the crowd and could interpret the significance of the vision. The revelations were available to all, but now it took a prophetic personality to see it.

When the Hebrews were enslaved by the Babylonians, it is clear that dream interpretation practices in this culture surrounded them. But the story of the failure of Nebrechadnezzer's court interpreters and the success of Daniel's interpretation speaks to a strength of the traditions that the Hebrews brought with the into captivity. The richness of interpretation suggests, says Leroy Howe, that Daniel had a whole community tradition to draw from, though the final interpretive source was God.

If the Apocrypha can be our evidence, then dreams continued to be of value through the time Christ. They were considered doorways to another world, though superstitious interpretation and pre-occupation were discouraged and mocked. The official dream interpreters were now only the most learned and powerful of the leaders, though it is said that secular dream interpreters were so highly valued that unlike other professions, they nearly always got paid.

The Talmud continues commenting on dreams from 200 to 500 A.D. separating good and bad dreams, though even bad dreams could be inspirations for reform. From the Talmud comes the famous saying:

"An uninterpreted dream is like an unread letter" Rabbi Hisda

The Great Jewish Hellenist of Alexandria, Philo, wrote several books on dreams as well as the highly influential Maimonides, who felt that those who were prepared would receive visions in sleep as the grip of consciousness slackened and the divine was allowed to flow through the imaginative faculties.

Writers right up to present time can be found in the Jewish tradition, but the general art of dream interpretation seemed to have been kept to the most learned, and followed by an isolated intelligencia. The only exception to this is a magnificent flowering of esoteric ideas that came from the Jewish community in Spain between 1150 and 1490 in Kaballistic literature.

The first bloom, around 1260, saw the development of the symbolism of the Tree of Life (the Sefierot) which was closely tied with gnosticism and neo-platonic thought, as well as influences of the surrounding Islam. The most popular book, the Zohar, appears and pulls together two channels of thought. The first was the concern with the problem of evil which was unfolded in a rich demonology, and the second a concern with inner mysticism & prophecy with ties to Sufism, Yoga, Byzantine Mysticism and the Rabbinical tradition. The Zohar uses a method of interpretation that allows for multiple levels; literal, moral, allegorical and mystical. The symbolic unfolding of the Tree of Life and general interpretation of Everything includes dream imagery.

The Tree of Life is a metaphorical structure of the way God manifests through all things and how they interrelate. Dreams contain symbols that can them be related to the Seiferot so that the participant may come into alignment with God.

While the Kaballistic movements dissipated with the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, the influence through poorly translated and watered down Christian versions were the most influential forces on the occult philosophies that began to emerge in Europe in the 16th Century. Though drastically missing the spirit of the work, the influence of the Kaballa on esoteric thought is undeterminably deep. One can see this clearly by looking at the structure of a modern Tarot deck. This mysticism was revived in the 20th Century by Gershom G. Sholem who was at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem between 1923 and 1965. See his 1941 Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism.

A Christian Dream Story

One might guess that the Christian dream story starts around the First Century AD and could be traced to the present as a variation of Hebrew traditions. But in fact, Christianity was a Greek project, and early on the focus was on the Greco-Roman world. The influx of Greek thought on dreams would present the church with such tension filled questions that it eventually banned dream revelations rather than deal with these questions.

What were these Greek Influences?
In the Homeric Greece, popular dream theory seems to be a mix of influences. There was the idea that gods and demons visit us in dreams and there was a shamanistic, Indo-European overlay, (Orphic) of the wandering soul during dreams. To enter Apollo's temple and speak with an oracle (or oracle's attendant) one first had to sleep on the steps and have an appropriate dream.

Many dreams required interpretation, and examples of this are found in Homer's Iliad and Odyssey. Those that were clear still posed a problem. Odysseus's wife Penelope explains the core dilemma that will haunt the Christian Church in later millennium; "...in truth dreams, do arise which are perplexing and hard to understand, which in men's experience do not come true. Two gates there are for unsubstantial dreams, one made of horn and one of ivory. The dreams that pass through the carved ivory delude and bring us talkes that turn to naught; those that come forth through polished horn accomplish real things, wherever they are seen. Yet through this gate come not I think my own strange dream" Odyssey 19.559ff.

Other Greek ideas on dreams include the cult of Asklepios, the philosophers and dreams as dramatic devices in writing and plays.

Around the fifth and sixth century B.C. there arose the Cult of Asklepios, whose priers maintained dream sanctuaries for those who needed healing. Those in need would come to the spa and try to have a healing dream, usually of being touched by the god Asklepios or one of his images such as the snake or dog. These sanctuaries spread throughout the Aegean and Asia Minor and lasted into Roman times.

Dreams were also important in Greek Drama, and there is some evidence (skimpy) that dreams may have been acted out in amphitheaters, originally as part of orgiastic group dances that were tamed into scripted drama. Finally, the Early Church was influenced by Plato, and the idea that knowledge could come from the irrational as well as our senses and reason.

The story of New Testament begins with dream sharing, in an angel coming to Joseph in his sleep and instructing him to stick with Mary even though she is pregnant with someone else's child. Although there are no recorded dreams of Jesus per say, visions surround his life and there are many dreams recorded by the apostles. These dream visions continue into the literature that surrounds the New Testament, such as the Apocrypha, the Shepard of Hermas and the Martyrdom of Polycarp.

Morton Kelsey makes the point that while dreams were seen in both the New and Old Testament as pathways to and from God, there were discussed more in the Old Testament. He speculates that this is due to the Old Testament being written by those who were surrounded by pagan dream practices and wanted to distinguish the unique Hebrew experience from the Babylonian surroundings. The early Christians simply accepted dreams a route that God could speak. Dreams and visions were good or bad depending on the ability of the person having the dream to be able to tell the difference, what Paul calls the discernment of the spirits. Bad dreams came from the false prophet or demons.

By 150 AD Christianity had a score of intelligencia, including the likes of Irenaeus, Tertullian, Clement, Origen, Ananasius, Augustine, Gregory of Nyssa, Chrysostom and others. These church fathers were heavily influenced by Greek dream practice & Plato, and saw the dreams as a medium of communication between man and the divine.

After Constantine's dream to use the Christian Cross symbol on the shields of his warriors and the 313 Edict of Milan, Christian persecution all but stopped and the Church began to develop it own orthodoxy. For awhile the dream remained in favor and a means of contact with the divine. Delightful theories on dreams were forwarded by Neo-Platonists like Macrobius, imaginalist like Synesius of Cyrene, Augustine, Gregory of Nyssa and others. Still, there was growing concern about who had the authority to determine if a dream were sent by God or not, as evidenced in the writings of Tertullian where he finally concludes in De Anima that because they are so difficult to interpret, only saints should do so.

The Dark Age of Dreams

Jerome was asked in the 4th century to produce a Latin version of the Greek Bible and in doing so translated the Greek "You shall not practice augury or witchcraft." into "You shall not practice augury nor observe dreams." Dreams interpretation became classed with soothsaying and witchcraft. Since Jerome himself was led back to the Church from paganism by a dream vision, this act is more difficult to understand. However, Jerome was continually shifting back and forth between pagan and Christian thought, and this job of translation was obviously during a Christian swing. It may be he wanted to personally set aside any practices that he knew to be pagan influenced.

Whatever the reason, the Vulgate translation would eventually lead to the people (usually women) being accused of witchcraft for dream sharing.

If this weren't enough, Rome fell to the barbarian kings and the general education of the leaders dipped for a millennium, or more accurately, shifted to the East. There were exceptions, such as the dream recording monk John Cassian of Marsailles (5thC), Gregory the Great (6thC), Isidore fo Seville and the demonic dream Sententiae (6thC) , and Bede the Venerable (7th C), but they all pretty much felt that dream interpretation was not for the common man and only for the most learned and saintly. The Greek test of the gate of false ivory or the true gate of horn became too great a tension for the Church to bear. Individual vision and the use of imagination could no longer be tolerated by the fragile papal authority. The world was ugly and getting uglier, and the split between evil natural and godly achieved further severed dreams from the orthodox church. Except for the esoteric alchemists, Christianity would not practice dream sharing again until the end of the 20th century.

The Dreams of the Prophet

Meanwhile, in the deserts of the East in the cave of Hira near Mecca, a man had a dream. In Mohammed's dream the an angel told him to read, to which he replied he could not. He awoke and went outside to another vision where Gabriel told him of his selection as Allah's messenger. Why then did Mohammed ban the interpretation of dreams? The most common thought on this is that dream interpretation was a fairly well know occupation at the time and some people at first thought Mohammed was a dream interpreter. To separate himself from this, he forbade his followers to interpret dreams. Though he did ask them to tell him any dreams they had.

After the time of the Prophet, Major revelations were still banned, but dreams of the prophet were considered valid and out of study of the Prophet's dreams themselves grew a whole host of literature and writing. As Jean Lecerf suggests, it was just one professional group of vision interpreters that were banned. Generally, the old Bedouin traditions were replaced with the new Islamic theology. Many of the Greek texts that were lost by the Christians were saved and translated into Arabic, such as the philosophies of Aristotle and the dream works of Artimedoris. This great flowering of dream studies took on a "scientific" flavor, with immense classification systems being developed. Interpretation could depend on such particular factors, for example, as which member of the Royal family you were.

Just as the Hebrew faith gave birth to the mystic Kaballa, so too did Islam give birth to mystic Sufism. Sufism sought direct experience of God in a mystic love relationship and provided an alternative to the legalistic orthodoxy. It is said that life is one long journey towards the Beloved. Even Heaven and Hell are set aside as inconsequential relative to being in relationship with the Lover. Each country developed its own visions and variations, from Egypt to Turkey to India to Spain. Though Westerners rarely hear anything more about Sufism than the Persian Whirling Darvishes, Sufism produced a fabulously large and rich body of literature, poetry, cannons, rituals, ecstatic practices and organizations. An elaborate hierognosis, a hierarchy of visions, unfolds the levels of visions in dreams and waking states. (See Henry Corbin)

The significance for us who are studying the history of dreams and religion is this: For the Sufi to find the Beloved, to Return Home, there must be a guide, a messenger, a teacher of truth, a companion and spiritual friend who points the way. Mohammed closed legislative prophecy & dream vision, but individual revelation continues and the divine bestows upon his faithful initiation in to the friends of God. Thus sufi dreams tend towards initiation dreams and gateways to the fabulous Mundus Imaginalis, the imaginal world inhabited by spiritual beings as well as other autonomous forms, genii, demons and images.

This world of images, the alam al-mithal, would develop into another fabulously rich outpouring in late medieval Islam. (see Fazlur Rahman). But one had to be careful to distinguish the Imaginal World from the mere imaginary fantasy. Mere fantasy takes one away from the concrete world, whereas interaction with the imaginal world transforms the concrete world and gives it understanding and meaning. In spiritual dreamwork, we might ask, when are we merely explaining away a dream, and when are we allowing the visionary power of the dream to take form in the concrete world?

As mentioned, though Sufism is widespread and continuing to grow, there are few in the West who seem to know very much. One current writer who has been heavily influenced by Jung has written of some guideposts along the way. Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee speaks of the "Psychology of the Beloved" :

The Fools of God: Those who follow the beloved learn to still the yackityak mind and tune into the wisdom of the Self, which can be rather crazy. Note in dreams where normal things aren't working, books hard to read, cars brakes not stopping, telephones not dialing or connecting.

These are places we are called to hear a different drummer. The Longing of the Heart: When we are called by the divine, we are given a little sip of poison and then nothing but the Beloved can content us. In our dreams we can see this in the sufferings, the poisonings, the hiding and running away, the wishing and desire to be somewhere other than we are. But since this process is larger and beyond the ego, its not so much what we do to correct it, but what we can allow to happen inwardly. What we learn is how to cooperate with the process. Part of the Sufi path is learning to wait for the Beloved.

The Transformation of the Shadow: Darkness and Redemption often reside in the same image. What was once our enemy can become our new source of energy and power. When in dreams we are chased and pursued, our relation to our shadow is one of flight. Other times we go too far the other direction and continually fight with the adversary. Confronting these pursuers without fighting or backing off, finding out what they are doing, what they want and why, begins to open the door to transformation. These shadows may come in dreams in the form of animal, family and a wide range of other unknown characters. Usually we see them in life as "morally inferior" and would rather die than find out someone thinks *we* are like that. The key to their transformation is learning to stick with them until the situation is changed by the intercession of the Divine.

The Seductive Guide: More powerful than what we fear, is what we desire. The inner Seductive Guide both draws out of us enormous energy and yet can at the same time crashes that energy on cold stones. Two confusions take place, the person sees the beloved in another person or sees the beloved in an imaginal state and longs for them literally, which brings ruin. The key here is to recognize that the Seductive Other is our guide to the Divine, not the Divine Itself.

The Call and the Echo: Because of the difficulty of the journey, Sufism has provided a mediating relationship, the teacher. The teacher, having been where we are headed, can not only guide us, but encourage us that there really is something on the other side. Eventually the heart of the teacher and student become one. Vaughan-Lee notes that a real live teacher is important, but eventually they must point the way back in to the inner teacher, and this is often revealed in dreams in both true and false teachers, dreams of tests and trials, as well as old wise men and women.

The Poverty of the heart. Beyond the mind is the heart. Eventually even the desire for spiritual progress is a limitation. When the seeker accepts there is nowhere to go, nothing to do, then there is freedom. Dreams of traveling and roads speak to this, but dreams of being happy in the moment more closely touch this, as well as images of the divine or inner child. Here the world revolves around us, not in the sense that everyone wants our attention, but in that a complete freedom exists between the two and the Infinite unfolds in all directions.

Late Christian Dream Mysticism in Alchemy

"Imagination is the Star in Man." Paracelsus

When Thomas Aquinas put Aristotle and the Bible together in his Summa Theologica, there was a problem with dreams since Aristotle though they were nothing and the Bible thought differently. His resolution was like the Medieval Church itself, avoid the issue and downplay any form of knowledge or inner experience that might speak to an irrational connection with the divine. Though Aquinas finally had a person vision which changed his own mind, his works went on to deeply influence Western Civilization.

However, Christianity had its own mystical side, which was evidenced in Alchemy. Alchemy is usually seen by moderns as an early dead end attempt on the part of pre-scientific types to make gold chemically. But those who did do this were seen as charlatans and "puffers" by the real alchemists. The idea was that Lead, left on its own, would eventually become Gold, just as sinners eventually would come back to God and obtain immortality.

Alchemy was an attempt to quicken the process, and the boundaries of physical matter and spiritual essence overlapped. Imagination (the trained imagination) and dreams played significant roles in all aspects of the alchemical process.

The general goal of the Alchemist was to produce the Philosopher's Stone, an item/thing/no- thing/concept/red tincture that could transform mortal into immortal, lead into gold, base substances into finer materials. The general process was to locate the matter to be transformed, the prima materia. This material had a real physical side, and a spiritual side in the adept performing the work. The Alchemist would first know they were on track when the project failed.

Having followed the secret messages of previous alchemists, the matter would go into what was called the Nigrado, or Blackening. All that they worked for fell away and a corresponding depression would ensue. Only for those that stayed with the process would experience the first evidence of a major transformation, the Albedo, or whitening. Some small spark in the darkness would appear and if the Alchemist could stay with this spark, there would eventually be the final transformation into material reality, the rubedo, or reddening. The Alchemists spent centuries elaborating and expanding the visual, literary and practices of the alchemy. Though I'm unaware of a set of specific doctrines on dreams that came out this, dream did figure into each of the stages of transformation and the rich exploration of symbolic realities. The use of alchemical symbolism would be revived by Jung in the 20th Century as a way of studying and transforming the religious impulse in humankind within the context of analytic psychology.


Dream and Religion in the Late 20th Century

The practice of dream sharing began returning to the religious communities through their slow but continuing acceptance of various psychological practices. With this revival came the shift from dreams as prophecy to dreams as revealing the inner life of the individual. The general idea was that God speaks to us in dreams, but in much the same way as other parts of our lives. However, even this stance is sometime hard won in a congregation. The Baptist Minster Herman Riffel, who began feeling that special spiritual knowledge could be had from dream sharing, was eventually asked to leave his parish. Because psychoanalytic work was introduced to America via Freud, it has often been seen by religious groups as atheistic or medicinal rather than spiritual. Had Jung been more popular, things may have been quite different. Morton Kelsey, for example, has inspired whole generations of Christians to talk another look at dreams, and this was due in part to his deeply held Jungian views. John Sanford, a Episcopal minister, has had a similar influence on millions of people with his Jungian-Christian approach. As far as I can tell, the Jungian literature and approaches are the most well developed spiritual approaches to dreams, and have influenced the re-visioning of Sufi and Hebrew dream traditions as well as Christian.

The Dream Work of the Spiritual Community

Some of the other areas that dream sharing is and will be re-entering the spiritual community are discussed by Kelly Bulkeley in his 1996 _Spiritual Dreaming: A Cross-cultural and Historical Journey_. Dreams often intensify around the death of family members. Dreams about dead family members may allow not only a psychological or emotional processing to occur, but also help the individual find his or her own alignment with mortality and immortality. Animals in dreams, when regarded from a spiritual point of view, can reveal the "ambivalent nature of the sacred, its capacity to be a force of joyful creativity and violent destructiveness in human life." (pg 19). Suffering, pain, illness, misfortune and death define a large category of areas where religion struggles to help find meaning and value. Use of dreams relating specifically to the suffering and to suffering in general can open up channels of communication & experience that allows us access to the deep spiritual realms where meaning is found in a close encounter with the sacred.

Other areas are simply waiting for development, including the use of dreams in moral development, the exploration of the nature of the divine and the relationship to humans, the idea of sexuality in dream as a draw toward the sacred, flying in dreams as a path for the development of our sense of wonder, lucidity and our development of general liberation and becoming conscious.

Jeremy Taylor in _Where People Fly and Water Runs Uphill: Using Dreams to tap the Wisdom of the Unconscious_ explores the use of spiritual dreaming in a social context and unfolds ways that a whole community or congregation may use dream sharing for spiritual development. With the introduction of the Internet into society, these congregations may form very rapidly and a collective wisdom may be shared across long distances.

The continual mixing of spirituality with sociology, with psychology and psychotherapy seems to be releasing a whole new set of co-mingled values where dreams can again become a vehicle for the divine. Whether you see spirituality in some grand sense of alignment with the Infinite, or simply in terms of meaning and value, spiritual dream exploration now offers a heavenly feast.