Many Christians — even those who claim to take the Bible with upmost seriousness — fail to take their dreams seriously even though the Bible is replete with significant dream interpretation from Jacob’s ladder to Joseph’s multi-colored ‘dreamcoat,’ from Pharaoh to Nebuchadnezzar, and from Pilate’s wife to Peter’s rooftop vision. In the third-century Rabbi Hisda, went so far as to say that, ‘A dream uninterpreted is like a letter (from God) unopened.’ From scripture to Carl Jung, what tools do we have as twenty-first century Christians for listening to God through our dreams?”
Listening to God in Your Dreams
The Rev. J. Carl Gregg
15 May 2011
Broadview Church; Chesapeake Beach, Maryland
12 [H]aving been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, [the magi from the East] left for their own country by another road. 13 Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him….” 19 When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, 20 “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” 21 Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. 23 There he made his home in a town called Nazareth…
Matthew 2:12-13, 19-23
There is a lot of dreaming going on in Matthew chapter two: a lot dreams and a lot of dreamers. The first dreamers are the magi. They listened to their, and “left for their own country by another road.” The other three dreams are Joseph’s. He listens and responds to all three. First he is told to flee with Mary and Jesus to Egypt to avoid Herod’s murderous wrath. After Herod’s death, another dream instructs Joseph to return to Israel. But instead of returning to Bethlehem, where Herod’s son and successor Archelaus might discover their return, the Holy Family make a new home for themselves in Nazareth. All told, the main characters in Matthew 2 make some serious, tumultuous geographic moves based on their dreams.
There is also a previous dream in Matthew’s first chapter. When Joseph discovered that his fiancé was pregnant without his involvement, a dream warned him, not only that he should still marry her, but also that, “It’s a boy!” and that they should name him Jesus. There is a lot of dreaming going on in the opening chapters of Matthew: a lot dreams and a lot of dreamers.
It makes sense that the magi would be associated with dreams and dream interpretation. When Matthew refers to “Magi from the east,” he likely means members of a priestly caste of the Medes and Persians — from the area of modern day Iran. These magi were likely Zoroastrians — a religion that predates Christianity by many centuries — who specialized in various forms of soothsaying or divination, ranging from astrological interpretation (such as following the sign of the star over the stable in Bethlehem where Jesus was born) to dream interpretation.
But in the Ancient Near Eastern world of the Bible, the magi were merely one among many groups vying for status and power. Their particular bargaining chip was their alleged ability to access special knowledge through esoteric and arcane means. And interestingly, it was not only Herod and Joseph who took the magi’s ability seriously. There is quite a bit of extra-biblical reports surrounding the magi, although not the particular magi referred in the Gospel According to Matthew.
New Testament scholar Warren Carter traces many different references to the magi during this time. The Roman senator and historian Tacitus generally dismisses the magi’s claims to supernatural knowledge and powers as “absurdities.” The Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca laughs at the astrologers who predicted the Roman Emperor Claudius’ death “every year, every month” only to have the prophecies proved false when Claudius continued to live. The Roman author Pliny the Elder wrote that he intends to “refute the fraudulent lies of the magi.” The Greek sophist philosopher Philostratus found it necessary to defend his fellow philosopher Apollonius of Tyana against the insulting charge that he is a “magus.”
Looking to astrology, the Roman Emperor Nero is alarmed at a comet’s appearance “because it is commonly believed to portend the death of great rulers.” The Roman poet Juvenal uses poetic verse to attack a women who gossips about a comet threatening the kings of Armenia and Parthia. The emperor Tiberius expels astrologers from Rome in 19 C.E., as do Vespasian and Domitian toward final third of the first century.
Said differently, the magi are a force to be reckoned with. They were serious power brokers and potential threats if all these famous philosopher and poets took the time to talk about them either for good or ill — and if emperors took the time to periodically rout them from their territory. And all of these power dynamics are not so foreign to us in the twenty-first century. Just as the Roman philosopher Seneca mocked the magi who predicted the Roman Emperor Claudius’ death “every year, every month” only to have the prophecies proved false, many of you have probably heard in recent weeks about the false prophesies of American citizen Harold Camping, who has led an unknown number of his radio listeners to believe that Saturday, May 21, 2011 will be the end of the world — even though Camping already erred once in publishing a book that said the apocalypse was coming back in 1994.
Similarly, just as the Roman Emperor Nero was alarmed at a comet’s appearance “because it is commonly believed to portend the death of great rulers,” as recently as March 26, 1997, the thirty-nine members of the Heaven’s Gate cult committed suicide because the false prophet and would-be modern magi-like figure Marshall Applewhite led them to believe that killing themselves would help them board an alien UFO connected with the Hale-Bopp comet.
I have taken the time to survey these historical examples as well as to trace some contemporary connections because a major temptation when reading the Bible can be to suspend our disbelief and pretend almost as if we are reading an enchanted fairy tale. However, I would invite you to experiment with reading the Bible from the perspective that anything that actually did happen as described in the Bible can still happen today, and, likewise, that anything that doesn’t still happen today probably did not happen in biblical times either — with the acknowledgment that the truth is likely somewhere in the messy middle between the two extremes of naive magical thinking and modern scientific skepticism. I am essentially espousing what is called Uniformitarianism, which is just a needlessly long word for a worldview emphasizing the uniformity of natural laws in the universe throughout time. In other word, the same natural laws governed the universe before, during, and after the biblical period. The Bible does not describe some magical time when the laws of physics were periodically suspended.
With this perspective of Uniformitarianism in mind, I want to bring us back around to all those dreams and dreamers in Matthew’s earliest chapters. We have seen that the magi did not merely make a guest appearance during Jesus’ childhood, then disappear from the world-historical stage. Instead, various magi were major players, using soothsaying and divinization throughout the Ancient Near East in service (or as a threat) to even the highest echelons of Roman imperial power. And we have own forms of pseudo-magi today, including the more nefarious forms of end-times prophecy.
These connections raise the question of whether the dreams of the magi and Joseph happened as Matthew describes because through history until our own day there have always been individuals and groups who have claimed an ability to interpret dreams. I should perhaps also briefly mention that Matthew’s first two chapters are far from the only biblical dreams. From Jacob’s ladder to the first Joseph’s (in Genesis) interpretations of Pharaoh’s dreams, from Daniel’s interpretation of Nebuchadnezzar’s dreams to Pilate’s wife’s dream, and from Paul’s blinding light on the Damascus Road to Peter’s rooftop vision of animals — and many others — the Bible is replete with dreams and dreamers.
In the spirit uniformitarianism, the question becomes whether God is speaking to us through our dreams as God — according to the Bible — spoke through dreams to Jacob and Joseph, Pharaoh and Nebuchadnezzar, Pilate’s wife and Peter. In the third-century Rabbi Hisda, went so far as to say that, “A dream uninterpreted is like a letter (from God) unopened.”
My personal belief is that many different parts of the Bible point to the historical and theological significance of dreams, but our best option for experimenting with dream interpretation comes perhaps not directly from scripture but from more contemporary sources such as the work inspired by the twentieth-century Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung.
My first roommate in the Art of Spiritual Direction program from which I graduated a few years ago was in the final stages of completing his dissertation on the topic of Christian dream interpretation in churches — or as he called it “dream work” or “working with your dreams.” He taught me some of the basic premises of twenty-first century, Jungian dreamwork, and I began to do some research of my own, culminating in facilitating a dreamwork group for a few months at the church, where I was formerly the associate pastor. For this morning, I would like to share with you some of the beginning practices for those who may be curious to experiment with listening for God through their dreams — although perhaps not on quite the earth-shattering level of the magi and Joseph.
Scientific sleep studies tell us that almost everyone dreams, but not everyone remembers their dreams. The most successful trick in starting to remember your dream is to become intentional about doing dream work. Put a pen and pad of paper beside your bed, and before going to sleep each night explicitly state your intention — either silently or aloud — that you want to remember your dream. Then, write your dream down as soon as you wake up because the details of dreams most often fade quickly.
Next, there is a simple four-step formula to begin working with your dreams that uses the abbreviation TTAQ: Title, Theme, Affect, Question. When you have time either immediately or later in the day, review your initial notes about your dream, then ask yourself, “What ‘Title’ does this dream want itself to have?” Allow your mind to free associate, and try not to censor yourself. Don’t spend too much time on this first step. Then, write out your dream more expansively in first-person, present tense to help yourself reenter your dream as it originally happened. For Theme, reflect on the” major theme or issues which surfaced in the dream.” Then note the “Affect,” the “dominant feeling or emotional energy experienced.” Finally, for the “Question,” ask yourself, “What central question is my dream inviting me to reflect or focus upon?”
When we shared our dreams in the church dreamwork group, the most helpful part of the process was that we never told someone what their dream meant. Instead, we had an open forum in which group members were invited to project onto the images and elements described in another person’s dreams. The central was of phrasing the responses was, “If this were my dream….”
My experience with dream work is it did provide me with arguably the easiest access point of beginning to unpack my unconscious, which is a process that would take more than a lifetime, but that can be essential for spiritual growth. And I am sympathetic to the view quoted earlier that, “A dream uninterpreted is like a letter (from God) unopened” — although I would qualify that God communicates with us in all manner of ways. So, leaving our ‘dream mail’ from God unopened certainly does not preclude us from experiencing God through the pages of the scripture, a walk in nature, through another person, through art or music, or through many other means.
As this sermon draws to a close, I hope that you are beginning to see that the world of the Bible is not that different from our world today, even as scripture also invites us to consider that the world has always been more mysterious and strange than we sometimes allow.
1 “Magi from the east”…a priestly caste of the Medes and Persians. W. D. Davies and Dale C. Allison, Jr., Matthew: A Shorter Commentary (International Critical Commentary), 21. See also Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading (Bible & Liberation), 74.
2 Carter traces many difference references to the magi. In this paragraph and the next, I am freely adapting Carter’s summary from Carter, 74-75.
3 Harold Camping… Saturday, May 21, 2011 will be the end of the world. See my blog, “STOP Making the Bible Something It Isn’t”
4 The Bible is replete with dreams and dreamer. For an accessible introduction to biblical dreams, see Robert L. Haden, Unopened Letters From God: Using Biblical Dreams To Unlock Nightly Dreams.
5 Haden, 1.
6 Jung’s primary source material can be difficult. An accessible entry point is his book Memories, Dreams, Reflections.
7 TTAQ: Title, Theme, Affect, Question. This process as well as many other practical techniques are explained for the beginner in Dreams and Spiritual Growth: A Judeo-Christian Way of Dreamwork by Louis M. Savary, et al. For those interested in exploring further, The Haden Institute (the namesake of Robert Haden, the Episcopal priest, whose book is referenced above) has numerous resources on “the relationship between Jungian psychology and spirituality,” including an annual Summer Dream Conference that, “has become the portal for Christian dream work in the country.”
8 For resources on dreamwork in churches, see the Seedwork website, available at:
http://www.seedwork.org/index.php/2011/02/dreams-spirituality/. Another excellent introductory resource is The Wisdom of Your Dreams: Using Dreams to Tap into Your Unconscious and Transform Your Life by Jeremy Taylor.
9 In the book Natural Spirituality: Recovering the Wisdom Tradition in Christianity, the Episcopal priest Joyce Rockwood Hudson makes the case that two of the most significant spiritual practices for twenty-first century Christians are — following in the footsteps of Jung — learning to pay attention to and work with our dreams and our synchronicities (“meaningful coincidences”).