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 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.”
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).