Then afterward I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female slaves, in those days I will pour out my spirit. (Joel 2.28-29)
These words uttered by the prophet Joel looked forward to a time when God’s Spirit would be so intimately engaged with God’s people that dreams and visions would become commonplace and available for everyone in the community, old or young, male or female, slave or free. Hundreds of years later, the apostle Peter understood this prophecy to have come true on the Day of Pentecost. And yet, with the exception of Pentecostalism and the so-called ‘charismatic fringe’ of other denominations, most forms of Christianity today find sacred dreams and visions to be as questionable and elusive as ever.
It is perhaps ironic then that when Christianity first reached the shores of what we call North America, the state that Joel looked forward to with expectation, and which Peter understood to be newly realized, was for the peoples who already lived here simply a normal part of life. In Indigenous cultures, dream and visions were common sources of knowledge, wisdom, enlightenment, and empowerment — one of the major tools through which wisdom and values were revealed and embodied.
Today I’d like to take a quick look at the role of visions and dreams in Indigenous cultures and see how this connects to Christianity’s own traditions surrounding them.
For the purposes of this discussion, I’ll be treating dreams and visions as the same phenomenon; not only is this conceptually helpful, but also seems to have at least some basis in Indigenous cultures themselves, since as Vine Deloria, Jr. (2006) notes, it is common for many groups to use the same word to describe the images arising from altered consciousness in both waking and sleeping states.* In fact, if there is a conceptual difference in Indigenous cultures among types of altered-state experiences, it is not the waking-sleeping contrast they have in mind, but a contrast in initiative:
The vision quest differs from dreams or daytime sacred events in that it is almost wholly dependent on the initiative of the human, whereas the other two means of establishing a relationship occur because of the initiative of higher powers. (Deloria 2006)
This connects with the first thing that jumps out to me about Indigenous conceptions of dreams and visions: Predictably from everything we’ve seen so far in this series, they are understood to establish a relationship that involves mutual responsibility, between the person and the revealing spirit, and depending on the content of the message, potentially also the community. Thus Deloria (2006) reports that “As a rule, … people avoided confrontations with the sacred because the gift of powers always imposed additional responsibilities on them.” These responsibilities might be a new relationship with the revealing spirit, or a new vocation within the community. On the first of these possibilities, Anton Treuer notes that some individuals abstain from eating certain animals in the lead up to a vision quest:
Turtle, bear, and other creatures are especially sacred, and while they make good table fare, they often help Anishinaabeg in spiritual ways, too. Once someone has had a vision and knows which spirits have established guardianship over them, the rest are fine eating.
Note the sense of reciprocity that this reflects: If an animal spirit reaches out to someone in a vision, they are understood to be taking guardianship over them, and this in turn changes the relationship between the person and that species of animal.
About the second type of responsibility that might emerge from a vision — a new vocation — Treuer writes:
[W]e all have some measure of destiny. It’s so hard to see what that is, and there are so many things in the way of our spiritual sight—but when we find it and embrace it, the results can be truly astonishing. In the Ojibwe world we get glimpses of this in our dreams or visions when we are fasting. We pay close attention to those things because they can tell us much about ourselves and what direction we should go.
While someone might hesitate to engage with the spirits lest they receive more responsibilities, in the case of the young about to enter adulthood, this vocational possibility is generally a motivating factor for undertaking the vision quest. Deloria (2006) quotes a Crow woman named Pretty Shield (who grew up in a traditional way and who told her story to an anthropologist in the 1920s) as saying she sought her own medicine dream “that would help me to live and to help others.” And Basil Johnston writes that the saying “[The expression] ‘No man [sic] begins to be until he has received his vision’ perhaps best expresses the Anishinabegs’ fundamental understanding of man’s purpose in life. […] Men were required to seek vision; moreover, they had to live out and give expression to their visions — it was through vision that a man found purpose and meaning to life and to his being.”
Deloria (2006) notes that, as a general rule, any new skill or vocation given in a vision had to be brought to the elders for demonstration or confirmation. This could be a different teaching from what Treuer discusses — for him, a vision is always private and not to be discussed with others — or it could be that only a revelation that might impact someone’s role in the community need be discussed and then only with the elders. Either way, there is a sensibility here that visions are not to be ‘shown off’ or discussed as a matter of pride.
Another feature of Indigenous conceptions of dreams and visions that sticks out to a Western mind is that they are understood to be legitimate ways of knowing: Like storytelling and ceremony, visions and dreams form a part of Indigenous epistemology. As Deloria (1999) writes:
Indians consider their own individual experiences, the accumulated wisdom of the community that has been gathered by previous generations, their dreams, visions, and prophecies, and any information received from birds, animals, and plants as data that must be arranged, evaluated, and understood as a unified body of knowledge.
There is often a strong connection therefore between ceremony, stories, and dreams. For example, two of the foundational stories of the Anishinaabe, the Seven Grandfathers Teachings and the Prophecy of the Seven Fires, are based on knowledge that in the West would be classified as ‘mystical’ or ‘esoteric’.
While dreams and visions can provide general information for the community, they are more often understood to be personal. Leanne Betasamosake Simpson (2011) writes of the importance of dreams in her own personal life:
Dream time has always been a great teacher for me. I see my dreams as guides or mentors, as the Grandfathers and Grandmothers giving me direction in my life. Dreams are how my own spirit guides me through my life.
The final aspect I’d like to bring out here is a sense I have encountered that, having had sacred dreams and visions, a person is thereby empowered to see the whole world and their whole experience as similarly meaningful. Richard Wagamese (2011), for example, writes that “introspection is … a place of vision.” He continues:
It’s a resting place where the story, the song each of us has created up to this moment can be inspected and those things deemed unnecessary be let go. It’s a place of courage, because the hardest place to look is within. Many people stop here, deterred by the trials of the journey and the sudden hurts that sometimes make life hard. … Balance allows us to move forward, and when we do, the journey becomes wondrous again by virtue of our ability to see the whole trail.
Wagamese has also written of an experience early in his reconnection with his heritage of observing a shade of blue just before dawn that he could not identify; this experience became a core experience of awe and wonder for him, and it recurs as a symbolic motif in his fiction writing.
So, at least for some individuals, the particularity of a vision or dream event opens the door to seeing the revelatory potential in the everyday and mundane.
I have written previously on dreams and visions within Christianity. To summarize this, a strong and well-grounded approval of these phenomena — seen in the importance of visions, theophanies, visitations, and dreams in the biblical stories of both Testaments, the prophets’ association of visions and dreams with the presence of the Holy Spirit, and Peter’s appropriation of this association to explain the events of Pentecost — has in most Christian traditions, now and throughout history, been overwhelmed by a fear of sources of wisdom outside the Scriptures or officially sanctioned theological or liturgical texts.
In my reading across Christian traditions, I think there are three major, related, reasons why this happened: First, a concern for orthodoxy prevailed in the Church, which can also be seen in the prominence of the ‘Rule of Faith’ for Biblical interpretation and the enforcing of uniformity of practice and liturgy across the Church. From very early on — the second century at the latest — those churches who engaged the most with ideas like prophecy and visions (the best example being the Montanists), were associated with following ‘false’ beliefs, and a general lack of order, a state of affairs that served to discredit the phenomena themselves. This touches on the second reason why the Church came to view these phenomena with suspicion: a concern for maintaining discipline and order from those with authority in the Church. From a postmodern lens, it’s easy to say this was nothing more than an power grab by the powerful, fearful over the empowerment of the masses. But, while it would be naive to suggest this had nothing to do with it, I think it’s also fair to say that any group needs structure in order to thrive, and having established roles and responsibilities within a community is important. Both things can be true and part of the motivation for the Church hierarchy’s coming to distrust manifestations of the Holy Spirit among the community at large. And, third, as we can see in the writings of St. John of the Cross, there was a concern that people would get distracted by visions and dreams and chase after these experiences themselves rather than seek out a virtuous life.
In the face of such opposition, the mystical tradition represented an important counter-current — think of the vivid visions of Julian of Norwich and Hildegard von Bingen in the West, or the vision of the “Uncreated Light” of the Heyschasts in the East. While they generally accepted the concerns of the previous paragraph — they all maintained a concern for Orthodoxy and order, and understood that dreams and visions were means to an end of a holy life rather than ends in themselves — they still engaged with these mystical phenomena, to Christianity’s great benefit and enrichment.
What I think this points to is the need for checks and balances, as in any area of life. However we may understand them, dreams and other ‘state phenomena’ are vital ways we can come to see and understand more about the world and be inspired and empowered to grow into our rightful place within it. At the same time, they are never ends in themselves, but means to an end. In traditional Christian language, we call this end ‘holiness’ or ‘union with God’, but as we’ve seen, these ideas connect closely to the idea of promoting Shalom, or the whole and healthy relationships that are at the heart of God’s vision of peace. As such, it would make sense for us as Christians to incorporate some of the Indigenous wisdom surrounding visions and dreams into our own teachings about them. In a lot of ways, the themes discussed in the first half of the post are part of any healthy and balanced perspective on dreams and visions, but they’re worth highlighting:
- A vision or dream is not just about the person receiving it; it establishes a relationship.
- A vision or dream is not about the experience, but about what you do with it, how you live it out.
- A vision or dream is not for public consumption lest it be a source of pride or produce envy in others; but if it has consequences for the larger community, it is important to bring it to respected leaders for broader discernment.
- A vision or dream can be a legitimate source of knowledge, but only as one source among many.
- Seeing the bigger picture of the world through a vision or dream can open our eyes and allow us to see anything and everyone in the world as a possible source of revelation. (About this idea, see my posts on icons and my summary post for the Sacred Practices series.)
* For full references, please see the Bibliography for the series.