Troubling Dreams

April 26, 2012 | 21 comments
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I keep my visions to myself.
Have you any dreams you’d like to sell?

Mormons tend not to keep their visions to themselves. In his recent General Conference talk “How to Obtain Revelation and Inspiration for Your Personal Life,” Elder Richard G. Scott seems to be inviting Mormons to do the same with their dreams.

The talk starts out along predictable lines for a talk on personal revelation, describing revelation as important information communicated by the Holy Ghost that is “crisp and clear and essential,” whereas inspiration is merely a “series of promptings” that “guide[s] us step by step to a worthy objective.” Elder Scott describes his own approach to obtaining personal revelation: fast, pray to find helpful scriptures, then read and ponder and pray and read and ponder. Anger, hurt, defensiveness, loud and inappropriate laughter, and exaggeration “drive away the Holy Ghost”; exercise, a good night’s sleep, and “good eating habits” enhance spiritual communication. He then gives this interesting counsel on dreams:

Revelation can also be given in a dream when there is an almost imperceptible transition from sleep to wakefulness. If you strive to capture the content immediately, you can record great detail, but otherwise it fades rapidly. Inspired communication in the night is generally accompanied by a sacred feeling for the entire experience. The Lord uses individuals for whom we have great respect to teach us truths in a dream because we trust them and will listen to their counsel. It is the Lord doing the teaching through the Holy Ghost. However, He may in a dream make it both easier to understand and more likely to touch our hearts by teaching us through someone we love and respect.

As he uses the previously defined terms revelation and inspiration in that passage, it seems reasonable to think that a dream that is “crisp and clear and essential” would be a form of revelation.

What’s Doctrinal

What is LDS doctrine when it comes to dreams? The LDS Bible Dictionary offers half a sentence, stating that dreams are “one of the means by which God communicates with men.” (Sorry, ladies.) Brent L. Top offers a bit more in the entry “Revelation” in LDS Beliefs: A Doctrinal Reference (Deseret Book, 2011), giving scripture, the light of Christ, and the Spirit of God as revelatory conduits that induce revelatory thoughts (quoting Joseph Smith, “when you feel pure intelligence flowing into you” as “sudden strokes of ideas”) and revelatory feelings (quoting D&C 9:8, “your bosom shall burn within you” and “you shall feel that it is right”). He then adds, “Divine messages from God can also come in the form of visions, visitations, inspired dreams, and other direct and miraculous means.”

What’s Troubling

One pitfall that Elder Scott tries to avoid is the question of who is doing the communicating. In the paragraph quoted above, Elder Scott was careful to clarify the source: “It is the Lord doing the teaching through the Holy Ghost.” But earlier in the talk he acknowledged strength and support from “the other side of the veil,” suggesting that some sort of communication or influence comes to us directly from individual spirits. On the first reading, if dear departed Uncle Orville appears to you in a revelatory dream — one that is “crisp and clear and essential” and that you write down quickly upon awakening so you don’t forget the details — it’s not really a message from Uncle Orville, it’s a message from God via the Holy Ghost. But I suspect many recipients of such a dream would run with the second option and accept the dream as a communication direct from Uncle Orville.

Another wrong turn I can see would be if this talk spurs increased sharing of what are held to be personal revelatory dreams. Testimony meeting would, I suppose, be the natural venue for this sort of sharing, although I could see it happening in lessons as well. The title of Elder Scott’s talk seems to counsel against this practice by limiting the application to “your personal life,” but he didn’t really emphasize that limitation in the body of the talk. Besides, the line between personal life and public life is quickly disappearing. Once upon a time, “your personal life” implied private matters; nowadays, “your personal life” means your last ten Facebook posts and your Twitter feed. If a bishop were to be so bold as to quietly counsel a bit more discretion by someone who recounted a personal dream in some detail at the pulpit, I suspect the response might be: “I know it’s my personal life; that’s why I’m telling everyone about it.”

But the biggest trouble I have with recommending dream analysis as a form of personal revelation is there are no real boundaries. At least visions are relatively rare phenomena; dreams come to almost all people on almost any night. And there is nothing uniquely Mormon or even Christian about dreams or about claims that God communicates through dreams. Dreams (and visions too, for that matter) contain an array of symbols that tend to be, well, symbolic, and therefore susceptible to a wide variety of interpretations. Seven fat cows, seven lean; a large stone rolling down a hill; God on his throne surrounded by numberless concourses of angels. Dream analysis is tricky business. People who interpret their dreams tend to read meaning into them rather than out of them. It’s a form of projection, not the deciphering of an intentional message encoded in the recollected dream. I’m not sure the “crisp and clear and essential” test will permit objective discrimination between personal dreams (where people read meaning into their dreams) and revelatory dreams (where people receive messages from God).

There’s a third option of course: demonic communication, a message from the wrong source. Satanic influence and temptation is the flip side to divine inspiration, and it is held to operate by Satan or one of his fellow demons implanting tempting or misleading thoughts in your mind. Recall the experience Hiram Page who, following the example of Joseph Smith, started “receiving revelations” through “a certain stone” concerning “the upbuilding of Zion.” Seems like a worthy goal, and nothing suggests Brother Page had anything but good intentions. But Joseph was directed to tell Hiram Page that “those things which he hath written from that stone are not of me and that Satan deceiveth him.” Instead, “all things must be done in order, and by common consent in the church, by the prayer of faith.” (D&C 28 heading; verses 11 and 13.) That statement, like Elder Scott’s “crisp and clear and essential,” appears to be giving a method for discriminating between divine communication and not-so-divine communication, whether that be demonic communication or just introspective thoughts, such as spontaneously generated dreams. I’m not sure either formula really delivers on its promise. And if you can’t discriminate between divine, demonic, and autonomous dreams, what’s the point?

The simpler solution, in line with the traditional reading of D&C 28, is to say that only Joseph or his successors in office can get revelation through the appointed medium of communication, whether it be seer stones, dreams, tea leaves, or the entrails of sacrificed animals (recall the “other direct and miraculous means” referred to by Brent Top). That’s a simple, objective approach. “Keep your visions and your dreams to yourself” might be the better rule.

Note: Epigraph by Stevie Nicks, “Dreams,” on Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours (1977).

21 Responses to Troubling Dreams

  1. John Mansfield on April 26, 2012 at 12:05 pm

    Funny, yesterday driving home from work, I listened to the last couple chapters of Daniel on tape. When that ended, I changed to the radio, and this Fleetwood Mac song was playing. Now there’s this post. What does it mean?

  2. Dave on April 26, 2012 at 12:07 pm

    Was it raining?

  3. Adam G. on April 26, 2012 at 12:15 pm

    I think Mormons do keep their visions to themselves.

    I’ve had at least three dreams that had revelatory content, but I’ve also had a lot of dreams that seemed pretty gosh-wow at the time but I would be much less sure about. I agree that there’s a huge boundary problem in sorting out inspired dreams from the ordinary kind, and like you, I got nervous when Elder Scott brought up dreams in his talk.

    At the same time, I’ve sustained him as prophet, seer, and revelator, there’s plenty of scriptural evidence that dreams can be a form of communication from the divine and/or the spiritual realm, and to be honest the same boundary problems you get with dreams exist in other forms of spiritual communication. How do I sort out feelings that are reactions to my own psyche and experience from feelings that are reactions to the indwelling presence of the Holy Ghost? How do I sort out visions from madness, psychoactive drugs, or demonic influence?

    My guess is that most Mormons who are committed to the whole Mormon thing struggle with this quite a bit, and that it probably drives a lot of the Mormon experience under the surface, and even the structure of Mormonism. Especially when we put uncertainty about what constitutes revelation in the larger context of the unpredictability of receiving revelation and the guidance of the Holy Ghost.

  4. Howard on April 26, 2012 at 12:33 pm

    We are participants in our dreams. When I was first learning to fly an airplane I had trouble landing. That night I landed repeatedly in my dreams. The next day I made wonderful landings and I haven’t made a bad landing since! So sorting out our dreams requires us to look at the role we play in them.

  5. whizzbang on April 26, 2012 at 12:54 pm

    I once had a dream where Elder Nelson and I were in his office eating and talking about M&M’s-if I were to be in his actual office that would the last thing I would talk about! I also experience periodically what I call “waking dreams” where you’re waking up but you’re dreaming at the same time and it’s such a bizarre experience! The last one I had I had Elder Gene R. Cook of the 70 share his testimony to me. I can’t recall a thing he said but I remember the image!

  6. palerobber on April 26, 2012 at 1:14 pm

    as a side note, the transitional state of consciousness between sleep and wakefulness Scott refers to is called hynopompic.

    from wikipedia:

    When the awakening occurs out of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, in which most dreams occur, the hypnopompic state is sometimes accompanied by lingering vivid imagery. Some of the creative insights attributed to dreams actually happen in this moment of awakening from REM.

  7. Jonathan Green on April 26, 2012 at 2:36 pm

    Dave, I think you’re mixing two different issues.

    Can people receive personal revelation through dreams? In the context of Mormonism, I don’t think you can say that dreams cannot be revelatory. There are too many precedents in scripture (Lehi) and in Mormon tradition, both in history and in local/family traditions, and, as you point out, it’s recently been taught from the pulpit in conference. So we’re stuck with at least the possibility of revelatory dreams.

    So really this reduces to the more general problem of how to keep personal spiritual experiences within the bounds desired by the community. “I was told in a dream to invest in gold coins” is functionally not any different than “I felt warmth and peace when I meditated on my brother-in-law’s promise to double my money in two months.” Keeping personal revelatory experience in bounds is much more likely to happen, I think, if there is an active discourse about it, including dreams-as-revelation. In the absence of a community discourse, people can say pretty much anything they want. But if there is some kind of teaching to work with, people can work out the limits of what is acceptable. The “crisp and clear and essential” standard can be used – not just by the dreamer – to legitimize some dreams as revelation, but also to disqualify others.

  8. Howard on April 26, 2012 at 3:00 pm

    …out the limits of what is acceptable…to disqualify others. Interesting that inspiration and revelation is our heritage yet it makes so many uncomfortable and skeptical. Anyone with more access to the spirit than ourselves becomes suspect. Sacred not secret is the phrase we use to escape scrutiny.

  9. Dave on April 26, 2012 at 3:24 pm

    Thanks for the comments, everyone.

    Adam (#3), sit down for this … I think we agree.

    Howard (#4), learning to fly. Seems I’ve heard a song about that, too.

    Jonathan (#7), some community discourse would be nice, as long as it is in touch with reality rather than the sort of conversation where any claim, no matter how ungrounded or implausible, is given credence as long as it is couched in the context of faith. I think the Church has a responsibility to channel and direct the faith of members to proper objects of faith, which requires us to say, at times, “No, we don’t believe that.” That’s a lesson that should be more evident post-Bott.

    Howard (#8), I think suggesting that anyone who doesn’t take every spiritual claim at face value is showing spiritual jealousy misses the point. Joseph didn’t tell Hiram Page how wonderful it was he had learned how to receive spiritual guidance through his own seer stone, he told him his communication was Satanic and he should cease. Candor isn’t such a bad thing.

  10. Howard on April 26, 2012 at 4:16 pm

    Dave,
    My point isn’t spiritual jealously, more like we’re somewhat skeptical ourselves and fearful of stigma so we tend to only buy into a level similar to that of our own experience. So your point is Satanic impostor revelation is the most likely reason for common skepticism? Many people near Joseph had powerful spiritual experiences how many were called out like Hiram Page?

  11. Jax on April 26, 2012 at 7:40 pm

    Dave, could you please clarify this statement for me?

    But the biggest trouble I have with recommending dream analysis as a form of personal revelation is there are no real boundaries. At least visions are relatively rare phenomena; dreams come to almost all people on almost any night. And there is nothing uniquely Mormon or even Christian about dreams or about claims that God communicates through dreams.

    It sounds like you are saying that Dreams as revelation are a problem for you because non-mormons could have them too. I take that as meaning you don’t think non-members are allowed to recieve revelation. My brain tells me that that is not what you could be saying, but the wording keeps telling me otherwise. Many non-Mormons and non-christians have answers to prayers, experience healings because of their faith, etc, and are equally qualified for revelation and miracles as we are. While our Article of Faith says we still believe in miracles I hope that we don’t believe they only happen to us. Could you please clearly restate your stance on this? Thanks for the post!

  12. Dave on April 26, 2012 at 8:08 pm

    Jax, I think that what I am saying is that dreams are uniformly distributed across the human population, so it seems problematic to see them as somehow linked to the special or unique authority or revelation claims of the Church. It would difficult, I think, to claim that Mormon dreams are, on occasion, revelatory but no one else’s dreams are. [A claim that no one's dreams are revelatory, on the other hand, would not have this problem.] Alleged visions are obviously rarer and are, in general, easier to dismiss if they through another denomination or faith tradition, so they are less of a problem to explain.

  13. Bryan in VA on April 26, 2012 at 8:35 pm

    Joel 2:28, 29
    28 And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions:

    29 And also upon the servants and upon the handmaids in those days will I pour out my spirit.

    D&C 63:64
    Remember that that which cometh from above is sacred, and must be spoken with care, and by constraint of the Spirit; and in this there is no condemnation…

  14. Jax on April 26, 2012 at 9:04 pm

    Dave I get that it would be a problem to say only LDS dreams are revelatory, but who is saying that? I was saying the opposite, that everyone can recieve revelation through dreams, just as everyone (member or not) can recieve anwers to prayers, witness healings, fast for blessings…etc. Did Elder Scott make the claim that only Mormon dreams are revelatory? or are you making that claim now?

  15. Bonnie on April 26, 2012 at 10:34 pm

    I suppose we don’t live in any more skeptical age than any past, just as the political discourse isn’t any more heated or the age any less golden, but I think we ascribe too many dreams to last night’s spicy dinner, especially if we already have reservations about the dreamer who so candidly discusses her/his other inspirations. One of the things I find so approachable about Joseph is his generally democratic way of encouraging all around him to develop spiritual gifts and his unwillingness except in potentially divisive cases (like Page’s) to ask people to desist. Even then, he asked Oliver to ask Hiram, muting the reproach. We have to practice with gifts, and we aren’t very good at them at first. I was so excited to hear this talk because I think we downplay personal revelation, carefully wanting to avoid looking like crackpots to the outside world, when it is the core of our faith and the key to the church’s increased growth. What I find most appealing about Elder Scott’s talks is that in his repeated discussions of revelation, he always encourages people to write them down. When I have returned to previous revelations, I often reinterpret them with the greater spiritual maturity of a few years, and that’s possible when they’re recorded. As far as being misled, that’s always the danger with revelation (as #7 already stated). I think discrimination between all of our types of revelation is also a thing that we come to with practice. It’s worth the effort to try, even if we have to nod at a few failures of our own and others’ efforts.

  16. Howard on April 27, 2012 at 2:40 am

    Bonnie wrote: When I have returned to previous revelations, I often reinterpret them with the greater spiritual maturity…. Well said. This fits my experience as as well and I think at least partially explains the various versions of the first vision.

  17. Dave on April 27, 2012 at 5:32 am

    Jax (#14), obviously I’m not making the claim that only LDS dreams are revelatory. From the post, it’s clear I’m talking about the problem of distinguishing between regular (personal, self-generating) dreams and a small subset that we can term revelatory. How to balance the discussion of LDS revelatory dreams (which is the sort of discussion one sees in LDS contexts) against a discussion of dreams or revelatory dreams in other denominations or faith traditions deserves some attention and, I think, raises the same basic issue about the source of dreams.

  18. Cameron on April 27, 2012 at 1:14 pm

    The spirit give discernment if you need to validate something you received. If not, then you give someone the benefit of the doubt or just move on.

  19. nate on April 28, 2012 at 12:37 am

    I’m very happy to Elder Scott mention dreams. I’ve written down my dreams each morning for several years, and I believe every dream has a potential revelation about the dreamer within it.

    But the “revelation” part of a dream would only come as part of the interpretation. The interpretation comes after the dream, upon analysis. This is the Biblical pattern. Pharoah, Nebuchenezer, Lehi, and Joseph all have strange dreams. They share their dreams, and the revelation comes through the interpretation of a prophet. The dreams themselves were just dreams, same as any weird dream any of us have every night.

    You will only find revelations in your dreams if you seek after them: if you study them out in your mind, write them down, pray and ponder them, take them seriously and look for hidden meanings and clues. And every dream can potentially have multiple interpretations.

    Carl Jung’s approach to dream analysis was that every dream is about the dreamer. For example, if you see your wife in a dream, it doesn’t represent your wife, but an aspect of your own identity which your subconscious uses as a symbol to reveal something about itself.

    I like this approach to interpretation, and it has revealed many things to me through it. I understand that those revelations are personal and subjective. However, they also give meaning to me, and I consider them to be part of the truth God reveals to me as I seek for it. They become symbols and signposts along the road of life that help me to understand who I am and where I am going.

    I’m glad to hear that there is a discussion of dreams, but I think that dream interpretation is an art form about which we know little, practice little, and don’t take seriously. I’d like to see this change.

  20. Heather B on April 28, 2012 at 12:06 pm

    Good comments, all. I think like all forms of revelation, some receive in one way and some in another, as the Spirit manifests to us all in the way we can best receive that information at that time. I was blown away and grateful for Elder Scott’s talk, because as someone who has had a very few number of those extremely revelatory dreams, and who did not talk about them to anyone because of the extremely sensitive nature of them, I knew exactly what he was talking about and was so grateful for the mention of revelation in such a way. However… I think that it’s not at all “new” information or even newly stated… even the Lehi’s vision is in such a manner. And of course, we receive information for the group that we personally are stewards for… for example, I might have a very powerful dream that has nothing to do with being revelatory, but those of us who have had that sort of witness can truly tell the difference between the “just a dream,” category and the “Wow. I need to write that down.” category. I like what nate said (19) about dream analysis. Specifically, the dream being about (and for) the dreamer, as Jung said, being a crucial reminder. We can figure out many things about ourselves, our natures from the “just a dream,” category as well, if we write things down. But the powerful dreams, the ones that are OBVIOUSLY not in the “just a dream” category, I think that is what Elder Scott specifically was explaining, that we must particularly make sure we write down the details therein so that we might be able to not miss any of the communication given to us by the Spirit.

  21. BevP on April 30, 2012 at 3:09 am

    If I recall the research correctly, REM sleep, and with it the likelihood of experiencing dreams, increases during times of stress and a lot of new input from significantly changed life situations, e.g. new job, flying lessons, contemplating a major move of any kind. That can be interpreted as off-line processing of a huge amount of new information, sorting, making sense of it all. Infants do a lot of it, because this is a very different life situation from what they know.

    There are 2 views of being aware of that processing. One is that we’re seeing the sense as it’s being made. The other is that we’re seeing what’s being discarded, the emptying of the cognitive trash. In either case, we need not rule out possible spiritual influence, but I would think any conclusions we draw from the dream experience ought to be taken to the Lord in conscious prayer for confirmation, as any other decision we want to be sure is right.

    As Grant Hardy pointed out in discussing Lehi’s dreams and visions, waking visions were anciently privileged over dreams, probably for good reason. Might be safest to keep them to ourselves most of the time.

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