A Sermon by the Rev. James P. Cooper
Each year, as we reflect about the things that have happened in the past year, we begin to wonder about the things that might happen in the year to come. We are interested in what the future may hold for us, even though we know that if we had the sure and certain knowledge of the future it would take away our spiritual freedom. But we would all like to have an indication of the way things are going to be. Our subject for today is what the doctrines of the church teach about dreams, and what, if anything, our dreams might tell us about our future.
The dreams and visions that we read about in scripture are different from our own dreams, for they were given by the Lord for the specific purpose of revealing the Word. The Doctrines tell us that there are four different kinds of visions, and three different kinds of dreams. Visions differ from dreams in that visions are sights of the spiritual world that occur while the person is awake. The simplest kind of visions are those of people who have very active imaginations and see things that aren't there. Spirits approach and encourage wild imaginings, and the longer they think about it, the stronger the feeling grows, until the person is absolutely convinced that it is so. The Doctrines say that "Such things befall those who indulge much in fancies, and are subject to infirmity of mind, and have thereby become credulous." (AC 1967)
Each of us has no doubt seen drawings or illustrations that made no sense at all until the artist explained it. Then the visual images of the picture suddenly made sense and the image seemed to snap into place. Optical illusions illustrate how little the eye is involved in seeing--it is the mind that interprets the visual images, and puts them together in such a way as to make meaningful patterns. Since it is the mind that really "sees," we can then understand that if the mind is confused or misled, all kinds of things will be seen that don't actually exist in the objective universe. Anyone who has been fooled by an optical illusion can understand that many visions and sightings of strange and wondrous things are not signs from heaven, but signs from a desperately seeking mind, especially when encouraged and supported by attendant spirits.
A more powerful kind of vision is inspired by what are called "enthusiastic" spirits. In these circumstances, no shadows or optical illusions are necessary. The person who sees this kind of vision is easily persuaded about things, and is able to persuade others as well. The Doctrines say that these "enthusiastic" spirits have contracted this nature from persuasions and false principles while they lived in the world. (See AC 1968)
The third kind of vision is called "phantasy." This is the preferred state of the evil spirits in the life after death. It is similar to daydreaming in that the person chooses to create an imaginary world in which to live and function, completely apart from the influence of any other living being. Such a world is completely imaginary and self-centered. The evil are in such a state because they are not permitted to act out their evils except in their imaginations, so they choose to dwell in dream-worlds of their own creation. "Such phantasies are perpetual with the infernals." (AC 1969)
None of these visions are like those experienced by the prophets who were involved in the writing of the Word. The prophets had genuine visions, which means they were permitted to see real things in the spiritual world, that is, those things in the spiritual world that can be seen by spirits and angels with the eyes of their spiritual bodies. These are real things that exist in heaven and can be seen by men in the world--but only when their interior sight is opened by the Lord.
Every human being has a spirit within. While we live in the world of nature, that spirit is clothed with things of the natural world, and uses organs of natural material to sense and manipulate that world. While in the natural world, the spiritual organs are within, guiding and enlivening, but they are not used. When the earthly body dies, and the natural covering is lost, the spiritual organs within come into use and open for the first time. The spirit awakes in the spiritual world clothed in a body of spiritual substances appropriate to that world. With it he senses and manipulates the spiritual world. Such is the ordinary case with all men.
Since a spiritual body dwells within the natural body of every human being, it is possible for the Lord to lay the natural aside, for a time, and awaken the spiritual senses, provided there is an important use to be served. Such were the visions of the prophets. When the spiritual sight is opened, then those things which have actual existence with spirits are clearly seen. Not only are representatives seen, but also the spirits themselves, together with an understanding of who and what they are, all confirmed in living speech, just as in the world, except that such communication is free from falsity and mis-understanding. (See AC 1970)
Dreams differ from visions in that visions occur while the person is awake, while dreams take place while the person sleeps. The first kind of dream described by the doctrines is that which is from the Lord through heaven. This is the kind of prophetic dream that is found in so many places in the Word: Joseph, the Butler and Baker in prison, Pharaoh, Nebuchadnezzar, Joseph being told about Mary and being warned to go to Egypt, and many other examples. (AC 1976)
The second kind of dream is one that is inspired by the angels themselves. This is the kind of communication that they had in the Most Ancient Church, where men on earth and men in the heavens were in constant, open communication. This does not happen to us today because the state of the human race has fallen so low, and is so concerned with the things of the natural world that it cannot any longer lift itself up to the states of even the lowest angels. (AC 1976)
The third kind of dreams are stirred in the mind when a person is sleeping. These are caused by the thoughts and affections of spirits in the world of spirits who are nearby at such times as you own conscious mind quiets down in sleep, allowing your unconscious mind to "tune in" to the spiritual spheres around you. (See AC 1976) Swedenborg conducted experiments to explore the relationship between the things that he saw in his dreams, and the things that were happening in the spiritual world at the same time. Waking after a dream, he, being at that time in open communication with the spiritual world, described his dreams to the spirits who had been with him while he slept. They said that what he described was a perfect representation of the things they had been talking about among themselves while he slept--but they were not the things spoken themselves. In other words, he did not overhear or eavesdrop upon their conversation and thus learn anything from it, but the subject of their conversation inspired the images and feelings of his dream.
The angels further told him that the same conversation could have been turned into other images with unlimited variety. The reason he saw the images he did was because of his own state of mind at the time. In other words, many different dreams might be stimulated by a single angelic conversation, because each person associated with those spirits would have a different memory, a different collection of life experiences, a different response to life at that moment, and so variety is produced much as the white light from the sun is everywhere the same, but produces a profusion of colors when received by the different substances in this world. (See AC 1980)
The whole of the Old Testament is, in regard to the internal sense, a prophecy of the Lord's life on earth. So, we can say with certainty that the Lord revealed the future to men on earth through their dreams. However, it is also clear that the Lord presented the information to the men in such a way as could be interpreted in a number of different ways. This made it possible for Him to write the Word by means of men on earth, and at the same time protect them from the danger of certain knowledge of the future.
Evil spirits burn with the desire to infest and attack us when we sleep, and because, when the conscious mind relaxes in sleep, the spiritual world is able to draw much closer, we properly feel the danger. Because the conscious mind, and therefore the free will, is asleep and unable to protect itself, when a person sleeps he is especially guarded by the Lord, for "love does not sleep" (AC 1983). Spirits who attempt to disturb or infest a sleeping person are severely punished.
In spite of the Lord's protection, spirits are able to draw near enough to stir and waken the evil desires and unclean thoughts that are lurking under our conscious mind, and these evils within us are permitted to express themselves from time to time. This is not an infestation from without, but rather a stirring up of some of the things that are within, the things that would dominate our waking lives if not controlled by our own self-discipline and the Lord's help. Frightening and disturbing dreams occur when our fallen nature and hereditary evils--our love and delight in the things of the natural world are stirred by spheres from hell in our sleep.
Dreams and visions were absolutely essential tools used in writing the Old and New Testaments. These were the means whereby the prophets, men living in the natural world among other men, were temporarily brought into the sphere of heaven where they saw and heard wondrous things. Their record of the wonderful things they saw and heard makes up a large part of the Old Testament.
In much the same way, dreams and visions played an essential part in the work that Swedenborg performed. He, like the prophets of old, was permitted to see things in the spiritual world. Unlike the Old Testament prophets, Swedenborg was prepared and permitted to take an active part in his visions. He was permitted to speak with the angels and spirits, to converse with them, to get to know them, to argue with them, and in every other way carry on as if a native of that world. This spiritual experience, combined with his wide range of earthly learning, made it possible for him to carry a spiritual message to men on earth with a clarity, a breadth, and a depth never before known.
But, does this mean that we should rely on our own dreams and visions as guides for the future? No, for several reasons. First, we must ask ourselves, "Who is the source of the dream?" Is it the Lord? Is it an angel? Is it a spirit recently arrived in the spiritual world? Or is it perhaps an evil spirit from hell? How can we tell for certain? The answer is that while we are yet in this world, we cannot tell for certain, and in fact can be easily deceived.
We also have to ask ourselves, "What is being stirred in us by this dream?" Is it our hereditary evils and lusts, or is it our affections of good and truth? It could be either. How can we make an objective judgment about our states in such a case?
Finally, after we have satisfied ourselves that the dream is from a heavenly source and we wish to pursue it further, and that it is stirring good affections within us, we have to ask ourselves, "What is the interpretation of the dream?" Remember Swedenborg's experience that one spiritual idea could cause any number of different representations in the dream. With the possibility of such variety, how is it possible to reverse the process and deduce the idea from the representation with any degree of accuracy without the Lord's direct assistance?
Dreams, like all ideas and thoughts, have their origin in the spiritual world. Pleasant, peaceful dreams have their origin in heaven, while nightmares have their origin in hell. Dreams may even give indications of what our future holds by revealing our response to certain types of situations, but never in such a way as to remove our freedom of choice. We must never fall into the trap of taking our dreams too seriously, but instead look to the dreams and visions of the prophets as they are recorded in the Word, and let these sure and certain words, prepared and interpreted by God Himself, let them be our guide for the future. AMEN.
Lessons: Genesis 37:1-11, Matthew 2:11-23, AC 4682:1