The Dream as a Medium of Revelation

God is a self-conscious, intelligent, voluntary Spirit, possessing and this without limitation and to an infinite degree all perfections. He therefore can and also does reveal Himself. This revelation is twofold: general and special. The former is that conscious and voluntary act of God whereby He makes Himself known to all men as their creator through the medium of creation and providence, in order that men may glorify Him and, failing in this, be without excuse. The latter is that conscious and voluntary act of God whereby He makes Himself known unto His people as their redeemer-God in Christ Jesus in the proclamation of the Scriptures. General and special revelation are both objective in the first instance. Objective, special revelation is effected through theophany, prophecy, and the miracle. It includes that revelation which occurs in the consciousness of the prophets and the apostles through external and internal address, through inspiration, and through the dream and the vision.

The subject of this essay is the prophetic dream. The qualification “prophetic” places this dream in a class with the mediums of revelation and thus sets it apart from the ordinary dream. In treating this subject, I arrange my remarks under the following points:

I. The ordinary dream.

II. The prophetic dream

  1. The prophetic dreams of Scripture tabulated.
  2. The prophetic dream and the ordinary dream compared. Their formal resemblances; their fundamental differences.
  3. The prevalence and use of the prophetic dream.

1. The ordinary dream. As dreaming occurs in sleep, the latter phenomenon first calls for a bit of attention. Sleep is a normal condition of the body. It occurs periodically. In this state there is a greater or less degree of unconsciousness due to inactivity of the nervous system and more particularly of the brain and the spinal cord. Sleep makes known its approach by a desire for sleep, or sleepiness, which embraces an obscure group of sensations that are referred chiefly to the region of the neck and the head. The eyelids are heavy. There is yawning and a drooping of the head. The intelligence is obscured, general sensibility and the special senses are depressed, and the muscular system relaxes. The half-closed eyelids tend more and more to close; the breathing becomes slower and deeper; the jawbone relaxes, so that the mouth opens; the head also relaxes, and the chin droops on the breast. The limbs lose their firmness and become flaccid. At the same time the incoherent utterances of the sleepy man betoken vagueness of thought and external objects and sounds cease to make an impression on his soul. When sleep- is sufficiently profound all contact between the mind of the sleeper and his environment is lost and he is now ready to be led into a new world—the world of his dream. It is plain why God would reveal the mysteries of the kingdom to men—to the organs of revelation—also during their sleeping hours. Sleep isolates a man from the world of his waking hours. It closes his soul to the stream of impressions flowing in from his surroundings through the sense-organs, so that in this state he can be wholly occupied in his mind with the communication from above.

As to ordinary dreams, they have their constant features. First, the images that flit before the mind of the dreamer are not to be explained by the action of external objects upon the sensory organs of sight. They are not to be conceived of as being external impressions conveyed to the soul by the avenues of these organs. Yet these images are real in the sense that they form the replica of things objectively existent, as when, to illustrate, the dream image is that of a living friend. The friend exists objectively. Yet though he be at our very side when we dream of him, the image of his likeness that stands out in our mind is not an external physical impulse transmitted to the soul by the avenues of the sensory nerves, but a mere dream-image.

The reason we see at all is that there is thrown upon the retina of the eye a light-image of the object that lies in the line of our vision. This image, traversing the neurons as a nervous impulse, is transmitted to the soul and the soul perceives. What it perceives is the light-image that is thrown upon the eye and that corresponds perfectly to the likeness of the object by whose action the eye is stimulated. We don’t see objects as such but what we see is only their images, brought to us by the light-waves. As to our hearing, here the external stimulus is the vibration in the air, the sound wave. Now the dream-experience is not the result of such external stimuli. Mark you, such stimuli. Fact is that external stimuli of some kind does seem to play a large part in many of our dreams.

The next characteristic of ordinary dreams ‘is that to the dreamer at the moment the imagined surroundings are as real and vivid as the actual ones which he perceives with his physical eye when awake.

We can dose our eyes and visualize any external object i.e., set the image of its likeness before our mind’s eye at will. But there is a vast difference as to vividness and intensity between such mental images of ours and the light images of physical sight. As compared with the latter they are devoid of substance and are characterized by the vagueness of thought. If we now consider that such mental images are not the result of. external stimuli and that the same is true of dream-images and that yet the latter in distinction from the former are to the dreamer as vivid and substantial as the light-images of physical sight, we shall see that dreaming truly is a wonderful and mysterious phenomenon.

Another general characteristic of dreams is that, though resembling waking experiences in many respects, they never seem exactly to reproduce the order of these experiences. Most of our dreams differ from events known to us in waking life, and even those which most closely resemble certain segments of this life introduce changes in detail. First of all, there is a great interruption of the order of time and place, which rules real objects and events. Places separated by vast distances are brought together. Secondly, dream-fancy exaggerates and intensifies the various aspects of objects, makes what is large still larger and what is beautiful still more beautiful.

But dreams also have variable features. In some dreams we appear to be passive spectators of events which we do not think to control in any way. In other dreams again we seem to be lively actors in the scene. We talk and move as we are wont to do in our waking hours. Then there are dreams in which we appear as struggling to seize some good or to avert some threatening evil, yet to be unable to execute our wishes. Dreams also differ as to the degree of reasonableness.

At all times the human mind has sought to arrive at some explanation of dreaming. Several theories have been advanced. Certain it is that the ordinary dream is a subjective phenomenon dependent on ordinary causes. But our conclusions as to what these causes may be is largely determined by the psychological principles on the foundation of which we proceed in our investigation of the phenomenon in question. The right principles are: (1) The soul in distinction from the body is a spiritual substance and thus not a kind of refined material. (2) As joined to and penetrating the body, the soul is dependent on the body as its instrument. (3) Soul and body form the one organism man.

It follows then that dreams are not to be regarded as purely the functioning of some spiritual faculty not involving the body, not even that mass of nerve tissue including the skull and that forms the brain.

If dreaming were, in this sense, a purely spiritual phenomenon, on account of the bodily and the mental being two disconnected regions, it should have to be maintained that it indeed could be carried on even without the brain. But it can’t. For dreaming is a mental action; and the brain is the organ of consciousness or mind. Now it is true that in death the two are disconnected and that nevertheless the soul, in this state, is, according to Scripture, conscious. May this not show that also in the state of sleep the soul can do without the body, in particular without the brain, as far as consciousness is concerned? To this we can only reply that sleep, though resembling death, is not death and that thus in sleep the soul, being, as it is, joined to the body, must, in this state, remain dependent on the body as its instrument.

If dreaming is not purely the functioning of some spiritual faculty, neither can it be conceived of simply as given off by the various organs during sleep, thus as a purely physical phenomenon.

The correct doctrine is that dreaming involves both the body and the mind and further that the mental and the physical are perfectly dissimilar regions of phenomena, which are yet connected in such a way that the bodily events, the conditions and the states of the body, can and often do appear as the condition of mental events.

But herewith the question, just what are the causes of dreams is still unanswered. A full explanation of dreaming includes several elements. There is first of all a negative condition to be taken into account, the suspension of the will. In waking consciousness the ego rules. In dreaming the ego becomes receptive and is the point about which life plays in perfect freedom. But there are also exciting causes of dream-images, which fall into two classes:—(1) external and (2) central stimulation. Among external stimulations are to be noticed those which arise from the action of external objects on the nerve sensations. Researches show that these may play an important part in dreams. It has been demonstrated that a man can be made to dream about a subject by whispering in his ear. By experiments bearing on this point important results have been reached. When, for example, the lips of the experimenter were tickled, he dreamt that he was subjected to horrible tortures, that pitch-plaster was applied to his face and then torn off. Sensation of hearing, smell, and taste were also followed by appropriate images. This does not militate against the proposition, expressed in the beginning of this writing, that one of the general characteristics of dreams is that the dream image is not the result of the action of external objects upon the sensory nerves. This remains true, despite what these experiments have demonstrated. External stimulation is at the most only one of several causes of dreams. Besides, what predominates in dreaming is visual imagery and it is to this imagery that the apparently contradictory statement has reference. My contention is that the visional imagery of the dream, our dream-images, are not the result of normal action of corresponding objects upon the sensory nerves of the eye. These nerves can, of course, be artificially stimulated. When the eye is vigorously rubbed one is likely to see stars. But this is not normal sight. It certainly remains true that sleep under normal circumstances has the effect of cutting off from the soul the voluntary motor-nerves through which it maintains relations to the outer world.

But to continue, among external stimulations are also to be noticed the condition of our muscles during sleep, which somehow convey expressions to the brain and so influence sleep.

Under internal excitations are included all dream- ideas which are occasioned by internal stimuli. It is likely that many dream images are occasioned by the excitation of the brain. Yet there are dreams—ordinary dreams—which cannot be accounted for in this way, are thus not occasioned either by such internal or external stimuli. So, after all has been said, and much has been said and written on this subject, the question still remains, just why do we dream? And, why do we dream what we dream? And finally, what is the source of our dream ideas? We may just as well ask, why do we think, when awake? And, why do we think what we think? And, what is the source of our ideas? To answer the second group of questions is largely to answer the first group. We think because we can’t stop thinking. I now speak of thinking in the sense of imagining, which consists in forming mental pictures. Yet the difference between imagining, thinking and reasoning is not so wide. In the most abstract thinking, imagining plays a large part. Now the mind cannot wholly cease to be active either when we sleep or when we are awake. Vigorous and concentrated thinking, to be sure, is voluntary. Attention requires effort especially when the matter to which we must attend is unappealing. But there is much involuntary thinking in our waking hours. Then the mind wanders and thought is scattered. Dreaming is involuntary thinking. When we dream the mind wanders and thought is disorganized, though not always. Attention, instead of dominating the thought- images that present themselves, is itself dominated by them. The act of attention is no longer directed by the will. This is some kind of answer to the question, why we dream.

As to the question why we dream what we dream, consider that as a man is, so he thinks, wills, and desires when awake and so he dreams when asleep. The state of mind and the trend of thought during waking hours often condition the mental processes of the spirit in the hours of sleep. The Preacher has something to say about the cause and the character of dreams. “For a dream cometh through the multitude of business,” and, “For in the multitude of dreams. . .there are also divers vanities.” (Eccl. 5:3, 7)

As to the source of our dream-images, here we are to consider that out of the heart are the issues of life. The elements of the dream—the dream-materials are present in our subconscious soul. And the dream-structures are the work of our fancy. When we are asleep these thought images for some reason or other rise before our consciousness and group themselves to form dream-structures characterized often by a total want of coherence. On the other hand, there is also a more or less coherent class of dreams. In some of our dreams a result is reached similar to the products of the waking imagination.

But how did that dream-material get there in our soul and where did it come from? It came from the world around about us and was conveyed to our soul by the avenues of the sense organs.

The apparent objective reality as also the intensity of dream imagination is explained in more than one way. The absence of any other reality to oppose the ideas which offer themselves, is one explanation. Others explain the reality of dreams through the suspension of the ordinary action of volition.

Dreaming is a mystery as is all phenomenon of life—and of death. We can, in the attempt to understand dreaming, recall our dreams and subject them to a careful mental scrutiny, if the impression which they have made upon our soul endures long enough, so that there is opportunity for this. We can experiment with dreams, as has been done. But having tabulated our findings, we shall still have to confess that we really know so little about dreams. The only wise and undoubtedly true thing we can say about dreams is that God makes a man dream, that our dreams, too, come forth out of the store of His providence, and that over them is suspended His all-embracive and sovereign counsel.

(To be continued)