Throughout history the dream has been venerated and even sought after by most cultures. Only relatively recently in Western culture have dreams have been regarded as meaningless leftovers from our daily activities or altogether ignored.
Pre-Christian cultures especially sought meaning through dreams. Whole cults were based on dreams. To distinguish the Hebrews from surrounding cultures, God established one of the Levitical commands, “Do not practice divination or sorcery.” (Leviticus 19:26b, NIV). Divination includes the process of seeking knowledge of the future through dreams. The Hebrews knew that some dreams were from God and that He gave the gift of interpretation to certain people. They also knew that other dreams were not from God and must be approached carefully.
Early Christians, too, believed in God-given dreams. Peter had a vision. So did Paul and John. The writings of the early Church show that many of the church fathers believed in dreams. Only at the time of Thomas Aquinas was there a change in church doctrine on dreams. Aquinas based his beliefs on Aristotle, who explained dreams in terms of strictly physiological causes. Aristotle left no room for supernatural explanation. For many years, up to the late nineteenth century, the church concurred with these beliefs, including the Protestant Church. This meshed with the Age of Enlightenment and the Age of Reason, when everything could be explained through science.
In the mid-to late-nineteenth century, people began to show interest in paranormal or psychic realities of life. This renewed the interest in supernatural causes for dreams, but this interest was largely outside the Church. Thus, many explanations today tend to be outside the Christian context.
There are three general explanations of the dream/need for sleep phenomenon: physical, psychical, and a mixture of both. Those suggesting physical needs for sleeping claim that people sleep because the body or brain needs rest. Yet, experimentation shows that the body is extremely active during sleep. Studies done with electroencephalographs (EEGs) have also shown that the brain is very active during sleep. Why then do we need to sleep? The proponents of this theory disregard issues of dreams in their research.
Those claiming that dreams emerge from strictly psychical forces disregard the question of sleep. They ignore the physical aspects of the issue. Psychical data is also disputable because the testing methods used are questionable. The usual method of testing involves people sending transcripts of their dreams for study. Events are then monitored to see if the dreams correctly forecast one’s situation. The results are not more persuasive than chance.
The psychological method, first introduced by Freud, explains dreams both physically and psychically. Freud suggests that we have an Ego-our conscious life-and an Id-our subconscious life. The Id contains our true desires. The Ego suppresses the Id in order to be socially acceptable. The Id says, “Eat now.” The Ego controls the Id until an appropriate time has occurred to eat. Freud claims that dreams are a result of the Id revealing our desires without the Ego blocking them. Dreams, to Freud, are often cryptic because we could not handle the raw desire that we truly feel. Freud often links dreams to sexual interpretation.
Dreams and their interpretations are becoming more accepted today. It is common for people to try to interpret dreams for hidden meanings and desires. Some invent dubious interpretations. Others run the accept literal interpretations. Middle ground is necessary.
Dreams occur about four or five times nightly, during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. Studies indicate that everyone experiences this phenomenon, though some never recall their dreams. Usually, dreams incorporate objects seen during the previous day or activity. Some report that major personal conflicts are solved in their dreams. Most believe that dreaming is essential to one’s well-being and that dreams help people sort out their complicated lives.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
What do you think about this topic discussion?
What do you believe about dreams?
How would you respond to a young person experiencing strange dreams? Would you try to help interpret? How would you begin?
For Christians, does God still speak through dreams? How can one distinguish God-given dreams from others?
Dreams may be useful in resolving lingering problems. Recording dreams and detecting patterns may be helpful for dealing with personal dilemmas.
Young people experiencing inexplicable dreams need support and understanding as they attempt to discern the meanings of their dreams.
Dreams may reveal previously unknown clues about a young person. Such information may be helpful to a youth worker trying to reach the young person more effectively.
Christians should accept the possibility that God still speaks through dreams, but one must be careful not to assume that every dream is from Him.
One must be careful not to read into dreams outlandish interpretations that only justify hidden, sinful desires and may prevent one from more healthy interpretation.