The Dream Variety of Mystical Experience

Last night, I had a dream that I went to Hertfordshire University.

I wonder how I would interpret this if I was an individual living in the ancient world. Perhaps I would interpret as some divine sign of where I ought to spend my graduate school education. I have, after all been asking for guidance on the graduate school decision.

This question presents an opportunity to explore the survey of mystical-dream experiences in Scriptures. Perhaps by seeing how the ancients responded to these experiences, I can gain some insight on how to respond to mine. (Probably, however there are some important differences between their interpretation and mine since these people were living in a time when most people believed that God caused earthquakes and storms.)

  • Abimelek has a mystical-dream experiences where God tells him that Abraham’s “sister” is actually Abraham’s “wife.” The dream is a specific and explicit conversation between Abimelek and God. (Genesis 20)
  • This dream has similar characteristics to the above dream, but their an interesting theological statement in God’s speech: 14 Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring.[d]15 I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.ā€ (Genesis 28)
  • Joseph had and interpreted dreams that lacked explicit commands or statements by God. Instead, these dreams “communicated” the future via obscure symbols and difficult to interpret “events.” Joseph’s first dream is an example: “We were binding sheaves of grain out in the field when suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright, while your sheaves gathered around mine and bowed down to it.ā€
  • Interestingly, dreams are not considered to be a theological “trump” card by the ancients. If someone dreams something that is contrary to the law, then the ancient Jews were not supposed to listen to the prophet who had the dream. (Deuteronomy 13)
  • Here, it seems we have the first instance of discounting dreaming as a source of divine wisdom: Much dreaming and many words are meaningless. Therefore fear God.
  • Here again is another instance where God seems to say that dreaming is not intrinsically some sort of telephone line between human and divine.
  • Apparently, dreams were being used to justify rebellion against the Babylonians, but God calls shenanigans on these dreamers.

William James explores the nature of mystical experiences in his work, The Varieties of Mystical Experience, and his work does contain some accounts of more modern mystical-dream experiences. Here is an interesting account that he relays,

“A great Being or Power was traveling through the sky, his foot was on a kind of lightning as a wheel is on a rail, it was his pathway. The lightning was made entirely of the spirits of innumerable people close to one another, and I was one of them. He moved in a straight line, and each part of the streak or flash came into its short conscious existence only that he might travel. I seemed to be directly under the foot of God, and I thought he was grinding his own life up out of my pain. Then I saw that what he had been trying with all his might to do was to change his course, to bend the line of lightning to which he was tied, in the direction in which he wanted to go. I felt my flexibility and helplessness, and knew that he would succeed. He bended me, turning his corner by means of my hurt, hurting me more than I had ever been hurt in my life, and at the acutest point of this, as he passed, I saw. I understood for a moment things that I have now forgotten, things that no one could remember while retaining sanity. The angle was an obtuse angle, and I remember thinking as I woke that had he made it a right or acute angle, I should have both suffered and ‘seen’ still more, and should probably have died. He went on and I came to. In that moment the whole of my life passed before me, including each little meaningless piece of distress, and I understood them. This was what it had all meant, this was the piece of work it had all been contributing to do. I did not see God’s purpose, I only saw his intentness and his entire relentlessness towards his means. He thought no more of me than a man thinks of hurting a cork when he is opening wine, or hurting a cartridge when he is firing. And yet, on waking, my first feeling was, and it came with tears, ‘Domine non sum digna,’ for I had been lifted into a position for which I was too small. I realized that in that half hour under ether I had served God more distinctly and purely than I had ever done in my life before, or than I am capable of desiring to do. I was the means of his achieving and revealing something, I know not what or to whom, and that, to the exact extent of my capacity for suffering.”

Well, it looks there’s no clear cut criterion for determining which dream is bunk and which dream is actually significant. Its all a bit weird anyway. How is it that me, a person living in the year 2011, is still looking for God in this odd and superstitious way.

Christians (me too) are crazy. And yet, its worth being a little crazy to get some Divine guidance. Life is confusing, and I’m not that smart. Perhaps it has no meaning. Perhaps it does. Either way, I’m willing to ask the question: God, could You help me out on understanding this dream of Hertfordshire?

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