13-2 faith

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A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis

13.2 (Spring 2013)




courtesy of artrenewal.org


Dreams, Déjà Vu, and Other “Numinous” Experiences

John R. Harris


A student essay I received recently on the subject of two ancient philosophers closed in the following manner: “These words [from Cicero] brought about more emotions from my past.  I was involved in a serious accident at the age of sixteen and I was pronounced dead three times.  In the moments that I was dead, I felt overwhelmed with complete peace and perfect tranquility.  It was the best time of my entire life.  There was no sadness, no pain, simply pure happiness.  It is this feeling that the Stoic philosophers were trying to persuade people [of regarding] the idea of living a blessed life, one in the body and the spirit.”

Whether or not the Stoics in fact had any such encounter in mind–and although the personal reference was certainly not appropriate to the paper’s analysis–I was of course deeply moved by the testimonial.  I decided on something of a whim to reproduce here one of the final sections of a little book from my own hand–one for which I have yet to find a publisher, but which I hope may bring thoughtful readers to reconsider the disdain for religious faith so common among our intelligentsia.  As anyone can see, my own position is far, far closer to Kant than to Kierkegaard (and Kant, I might add, has already taken a small hit from one of our contributors this quarter).  Yet I believe that emotional experiences of the sort described by my student must not be dismissed.  While they are not the exclusive root of my own faith, I refuse to disparage them just because they may not be as accessible to me as to others.

                My intent was no more for the five entries in this chapter to appear exhaustive than for the five conceptual arguments in the previous chapter to appear so.  In both cases, I have sought to discuss all relevant items that occurred to me, yet I must surely have overlooked material, as well.  My primary objective was to indicate the kind of argument that might be made from either perspective.

                Under the present heading, which may well have the look of a “catch-all” category, is included a range of experiences surprising to many, I’m sure, in a book pledged to common sense.  Others may sniff a little condescension in my compressing into so small a space experiences that, to their mind, represent the most frequent and most compelling motives for faith.  I am sensitive to both criticisms.  I would urge the former variety of critic, however—the friend of common sense—to notice that I do not here (or anywhere else) vouch for the literal truth of “visionary” experiences or “supernatural” encounters.  I wrote very early on in this volume of seeing the Evening Star with astonishing clarity one night while a very young life hung in balance, and how I allowed this “vision” to reassure me into virtual certainty that the life in question would be spared.  It was not.  I might chronicle at least a dozen other instances involving sources (including my grandmother) who insisted to me that a celestial voice had spoken to them or that a metaphysical hand had arranged some sign for their eyes.  My tendency these days is to disbelieve in the reality of the voice or the sign as anything more than wishful thinking (though to abstain also from scoffing at it—for wishful thinking is sometimes all that gets us to the end of the day).

                Yet as purely pathological encounters—as incidents, that is, which wring a pang of hope from us where we had supposed all the nerves deadened before—such experiences can prick us into new life.  My own disillusionment in the Evening Star, I am convinced, moved my faith to a more mature level.  It certainly precipitated further thought.  At issue here is not whether these encounters actually convey the meaning that their witnesses read in them, but simply whether they draw people into a deeper consideration of faith.  A shrewd observer may protest that only someone already immersed in a very charismatic kind of faith would run about clamoring that an angel had visited him.  This, though, is not entirely true.  I recently had a conversation with two young men who had both experienced the phenomenon known as déjà vu.  They were in their early twenties—just the age I was myself when I registered several such experiences within a few months.  We all agreed that we were exceptionally weary at the time of each occurrence, and that the setting was far more routine than exotic.  Each incident also revolved strictly around spoken words rather than deeds.  We knew exactly what we and others around us were going to say before it was said, and yet we listened in on this miracle without leaping up or otherwise showing surprise.  That, of course, would have taken us away from the script and broken the spell: even though speech was divined beforehand, the realization that it had been so divined seemed to overtake us too late or too sluggishly to cause an outcry.  We seemed to ourselves tied down and gagged even as we participated calmly in the scene.  An afterglow more bewildering than stimulating settled upon us once we had “snapped out of” our bizarre state.  The events all lasted for about a minute—not for a few seconds, but not for several minutes.

                Enough overlap exists in these various experiences that a serious analyst could study the phenomenon with a degree of clinical objectivity.  None of us three, and probably few who have ever been involved in like cases, would raise any protest against such an investigation.  Part of our claim was most definitely not that God had entered the room and sat beside us.  Yet the very ordinariness of the circumstances contributed to our feeling of having somehow blundered upon a seam that held the panels of “reality” together over greater truths surrounding us in mystery.  The incidents left us thinking about the nature of what we call “real” with far more open minds than we had possessed before.  They were moving: they “shook us up”.  Their character as incident had no kerygmatic content—no “message”—whatever.  Nevertheless, they were a motive to go farther, to be more skeptical of fully scientific explanations than others around us were who had not endured similarly strange moments.

                Now, the believer who imports a great deal of emotional energy into the exercise of his faith may be thrusting interpretations on such encounters as these or embellishing them subconsciously so that they flatter his special longing.  Even after we discount the effect of “wishful thinking”, however, there may well remain something of the phenomenon generally known now as Extra-Sensory Perception.  Psychics have assisted the police in finding lost persons or long-missing bodies.  Many of these are charlatans, but some are not.  “Ghost-hunting” has now evolved to the point that it generates television shows.  Much of the hoopla is surely nothing more than a bid to boost ratings: a few incidents of this variety, though, give every sign of being genuine.  Again, we should be very wary of assuming that a ghost has anything to tell us of “life on the other side”, for we may be confronting something more on the order of a shadow or an echo.  Likewise, a successful psychic is not the Sibyl and will not reveal divine plans to us.  My interest in such cases resides in their power to disturb, to force a re-evaluation.  They may not cause pain in a narrow sense—but they most assuredly cause discomfort in most of us.  While the specific content of the discomfort is probably irrelevant to any determination facing us as moral human beings (usually there is no specific content, in terms of a directive), the cause of faith is implicitly served merely when the choke-hold is loosened which science keeps firmly on the modern imagination.

                I remember my own example of the master-levitator who ascends to the steeple, to be sure; and I remember my insistence (as a follower of Kant) that any perceptible event must fall within the realm of empirical cause.  If we were to study scientifically such strange happenings as ESP recognizes, we would eventually arrive at a scientific hypothesis.  In the meantime, though, we would be forced to admit one more time that science, like the sea god Proteus, is always changing its form.  Its very success at doubling back on earlier assertions and advancing new, contradictory ones should motivate us to question whether it can lead to ultimate truth or only expand indefinitely to take in truths grown unavoidable.  If a visceral shock can ignite such a fertile chain of reflections, then it has served a benign purpose.

                My own sentimental favorite among what might be called numinous experiences (numen—the Latin word for a minor spirit, a local deity) is not déjà vu at all, but dreams.  Approximately 90% of people seem to dream in black and white most of the time: I cannot recollect having ever dreamed in anything but color.  My dreams often stay with me, as well.  Some are so vivid that I eventually build short stories around them, or even novels.  My work as a creative writer owes its inspiration to dreaming in a manner so direct that I hesitate to acknowledge it for fear of appearing mawkish or fraudulent.  The image of the “blind seer” descending the mountain with an epic poem spilling from his tongue is as stale these days as that of a poet dancing with the Muses.  Of course, images go stale because they have enjoyed a long currency.  Human beings have held their dreams in respect, and sometimes awe, for millennia: the Australian aborigines consider the dream world to be a more authentic reality than the waking world.  For a member of a science-based society to cling to such mysticism, however, is at least childish, and perhaps a little insane.  We know better!  Dreams are firing neurons, their content possibly influenced by the past day’s labors, the coming day’s concerns, or simply the present’s sensory stimuli dully registered in sleep: a light turned on and off, say, or a closing door.  None of that justifies waxing poetical.

                I do not begrudge the empiricist this dismissive attitude.  I certainly will not protest that my dreams (or anyone else’s) reveal the future of the will of God.  I have no doubt that an adequate material explanation—that several of them—can be found for any dream that any person has ever experienced.

                Yet recall that all sensations are subject to material explanation by the mere fact that they have been sensed.  If a man rises from his desk and walks to the window, we can “prove” that his muscles were subliminally sending his brain messages about their need for a stretch, whereas we cannot prove that the late sun playing in the white clouds made the man remember taking his family to the beach.  Even if he himself offers us this latter explanation, it may only be the one that occurs to him consciously in his profound ignorance of how muscles and nerves work.  We cannot prove the existence of free will, and we do not need free will to explain any objectively perceptible occurrence.

                Nevertheless, I may choose to believe in free will in addition to accepting all the laws of physics.  I may decide to graft a “redundant causality” upon physical cause which the physicist does not need but cannot, in turn, disprove.  He may rebuke me for ignoring Ockham’s Razor—for supplying more explanation than is needed.  I can easily counter, though, that the strength of my feelings is well explained by my assumption of a spiritual reality, whereas he achieves his greater simplicity only by denying the strength of feeling and often, indeed, feeling itself (which cannot be proved in his terms beyond an operation of synapses).  I choose not to amputate my humanity with Ockham’s excellent blade.

                And so I shall keep my dreams, knowing that the emotion they cause me with regard to places and people I can never see again in this life is fully subjective, nothing approaching a “fact”—but knowing, too, that their subjective reality is enough.  The stories I write from my dreams are not objectively true, either: they are fiction, shored up with credible settings and historical backgrounds but nevertheless concentrated around encounters more intense than what the real world usually offers.  Perhaps the dreamed events behind these stories help in making the written events symbolic.  Perhaps dreaming, if I may speak more psychologically than physiologically, is a symbol-making process.  Perhaps it mysteriously squeezes into a nutshell things that we cannot express to ourselves while awake because they are too cluttered with “sensible causes”.  Most of the arguments that can be made against taking dreams seriously, you see, can also be made against taking stories seriously.

                Yet I have learned far too much from dreams—and from stories, those of others and transcriptions of my own dreams—to be talked into closing the window they provide upon a different, non-empirical reality.  Perhaps my second variety of critic will make a truce with me on that ground.  I have not forgotten him: the critic, that is, who thinks that numinous experience is much the most common kind in bringing people to faith.  I am not even disposed to challenge his percentages.  I would only ask that he consider a change in tone.  Instead of “God showed me” or “God told me,” might it not be more respectful both of God’s majesty and of other people’s humanity (for most have not been similarly “told”, through no fault of their own)) simply to say, “I feel strongly”?  I do not know and have not been told that, in a higher reality, I will be able to meet a few people from whom death has long parted me; but, thanks to my dreams, I feel it strongly.