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Another Perspective

God & Dreams: Book Review

What follows is a book review of God and Dreams: Is There A Connection? It was written by Dennis Cole who is also an Episcopal priest and who happened to be a fraternity brother of mine many years ago when we were in college. I was not aware until recently that he'd become an Episcopal priest. I want to thank him for taking the time to share his thoughts with me.

At first glance, John Bingham’s small, unassuming book, God and Dreams, Is There A Connection?, seems a straightforward presentation of what people throughout history and from a wide variety of religious and scientific perspectives have said and believed about the title question. However, as I read and reread the book I found myself becoming engaged in formulating how I would answer the question. I found myself, in the midst of his fascinating and readily accessible history of dreams, arguing with myself, formulating what I believe and, honestly, being very open to hearing what Bingham, himself, ultimately thinks is the answer to the title question.

My internal dialogue began to center on the question of whether there still are new revelations of God, or not. Although I think Bingham’s view that religious orthodoxy today keeps a tight control over revelation is almost a straw man, the question remains, how is God revealed today, to individuals and to the world. I found the following quote in the book, which is full of very helpful quotes and extensive notes, akin to my own belief, and, that of Bingham himself, “The gates of revelation can never become hermetically closed. …It is in this context that we can understand the constant shying away from—indeed, often fierce opposition to—dreams on the part of religious authorities, who are motivated by a wish to contain, as much as possible, the power of divination.”

One can view the history of dreams as corresponding to the actual development of the brain itself and the human species’ evolving ways of understanding how the world works and why. And for a period of time, it seemed as though the development of science replaced understanding through dreams. Even further, scientific thinking challenged not only dreams as being helpful, but that God, itself, was only a construct, perhaps emerging from the dark recesses of the psyche. As Nietzsche asked, “Is man one of God’s blunders, or is God one of man’s?” Bingham states, “As philosophy moved away from perceiving God as a reality, the possibility of a direct, personal experience of God diminished. With philosophy’s focus on the study of logic and language, the consideration of God’s role in dreams disappeared.”

As a hospital chaplain, I am quite aware of dynamics which, only in recent years, have once again become open to a dimension of reality that is not fact, not chemical, not biological, not social, but spiritual. I found Bingham arguing that revelation, active communication with God, be it literal or allegorical, is still very much possible just as I would argue that the healing or health of a person includes a spiritual dimension. Were there no openness to the flow of meaning to and from God, there would be little need for chaplains as part of the treatment team in the hospital.

Bingham finds support in the works of others as he argues for the possibility of revelation, and, then, for dreams as a conduit for that revelation. He states, “For Dr. Bohm, the separation of matter and spirit is an abstraction. (This) thinking has implications not only for physics, but also for parapsychology and for the understanding of prayer, revelation and dreams.” Just as there is research on the utility of dreams, there is a large body of research on the spiritual dimension in healing. In addition to rigorous studies, I have found many, if not most, patients want and ask that spiritual perspectives and practices be included in their hospital journey.

I found entertaining Bingham’s discussion of some of the cautions needed when interpreting dreams. One could easily replace the reference to ‘dreams’ with ‘scripture, and, actually, to ‘church authorities,’ the same cautions are relevant. Interpretations can be wrong, literalism limits meaning, ego can manipulate interpretations, etc.

In regards to dreams themselves, although the book is chuck-a-block with dreams and their interpretations throughout history, I, personally, have not used dreams to inform me about my ministry or my faith. That may be a strange statement to make thus far into a review of a book on dreams. I do report that since reading the book I am much more aware of dream activity in my own sleep. Bingham states that a dream, early in his adult life, which actually occurred on an intramural practice field across which I, too, walked many times, changed his life and his careen was significantly impacted by it. My dreams, on the other hand, at least to date, have not been as clear or as helpful. In fact, the dreams I remember are very frightening as they are the result of hypoglycemia during sleep. I am a diabetic and when blood sugar sinks too low, my brain begins to ‘malfunction’ as it does not have sufficient nutrients to perform its normal tasks. Those low sugar induced dreams, for me, are pure hell and when the proper sugar again flows to my brain, I am trembling, not just from the physical trauma but from the fear that what I was just dreaming was a permanent state.

So, I am not convinced that all dreams are from God, unless the argument is that God created everything and, therefore, this is part of what God did. I am certain, however, as a mater of faith, that God is present in my life and in my work and that on a good day the loving intention of God can be seen in me and in those who reach out to me. Revelation, in that sense, is not a private insight so much as a way of living. I may become more sensitive to the possibility of God’s love and to the moments in human life when that love will be more evident. But the dream, alone, cannot be a full revelation to me as my faith calls me into community and compassion.

As you can see, John’s book stimulated a great deal more than just whether dreams are related to God. I will use the book, especially his rich record of the thinking of so many religious, philosophical, psychological and scientific people throughout history. I might even ask John to help me interpret some of the dreams that I am increasingly aware of.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading the book. I learned a great deal from it and it may have a lasting impact on me as my awareness of dreams is much sharper than previously.

About the Reviewer

I am an Episcopal priest in the Diocese of Olympia. I met John as we were fraternity brothers at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon. From Willamette I went to Divinity School at Yale and after getting my MDiv there I spent a semester studying with Jurgen Multmann in Tubingen Germany. I was originally ordained in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in which I was raised. From that point on I worked in the nonprofit world and ended up running several agencies. Along the way we became Episcopalian and I was ordained in 1998 at St. Mark's Cathedral in Seattle. We have been at St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Vancouver since 1980 and I have been an associate priest there since ordination into the Diocese. I followed John's career from a great distance. I am pleased to have become reacquainted via email and through the book.
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