John J. Pilch is visiting professor of biblical literature at Georgetown University, visiting professor at the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum in Hong Kong, and director of research for Cuyamungue: The Felicitas D. Goodman Anthropological Institute in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Pilch has drawn on insights from anthropology, cognitive neuroscience, psychology, and the social sciences to investigate biblical accounts of alternate states of consciousness. He shares his intriguing perspective on the topic in his forthcoming book Flights of the Soul: Visions, Heavenly Journeys, and Peak Experiences in the Biblical World. Here he gives us a personal, modern-day example of this kind of experience.
From beginning to end, the Bible is filled with reports of people having dreams (e.g., Joseph), visions (e.g., Isaiah and other prophets), or taking trips to the sky (John in Rev 4:1-2). They experienced God, received a message from God, or traveled through the sky and its numerous “heavens” (Paul in 2 Cor 12:1-2). What is a modern scientifically minded believer to make of such reports?
In the past, many biblical scholars interpreted these as creative ways of expressing a deep, spiritual experience. Eventually, people with similar experiences tended to report them in the same format. Biblical scholars called these “literary forms” and said the challenge was to discover what the author wanted to communicate. They were often skeptical that the event had occurred in just that way.
In the past twenty or thirty years, however, research into how the brain functions has confirmed that these events are common human experiences. They are not just literary devices intended to make a point. All human beings dream and see visions, and many take journeys to the sky. Such experiences have long been documented by anthropologists, whose research discovered that more than 90 percent of cultures on the face of the planet consider these common, normal human experiences. These anthropologists say that it is not the 90 percent who have the experience that need to explain why. Rather, it is the 10 percent who do not have the experience who ought to explore why.
Hector Berlioz “dreamed” an entire segment of a symphony on two successive nights but refused to write it down. He admitted that it was lost forever. Jazz musician Dave Brubeck “dreamed” an entire “Our Father” for a Mass he had composed in which he neglected to include that segment. He wrote it down and it is now part of that Mass.
When my wife died of ovarian cancer in 1997, I continued our custom of calling her mother every Sunday evening. I sent postcards from my travels. One day, her son saw one of my postcards and flew into a jealous rage. For the sake of peace in the family, she asked that I no longer contact her until she advised me to resume. Five years later, in August 2009, she appeared to me in a dream saying she had to go to New York for surgery. She asked me for prayers, comfort, and consolation. When I woke, I was puzzled. She had excellent medical facilities in her hometown. What was this all about?
I asked a friend who lived nearby to contact her. My friend learned that my mother-in-law had cancer and was given just three months to live. She would welcome my calls but only at a “safe” time. We resumed telephone contact for a few months until she died in December 2009.
Scholars identify such events as experiences in alternate states of consciousness. Human beings are capable of at least thirty-five different levels of awareness: dreams, daydreams, trance, road trance, and the like. The Bible indicates that this is one of God’s favored ways of communicating with human beings (1 Sam 3:1).
I’d like to think that it was the God who created us and made us capable of such experiences who arranged for my very weakened mother-in-law to tell me it was time for us to resume contact. If God talks to us through dreams and visions, then perhaps our deceased relatives and ancestors can communicate with us this way, too. We must, however, be open to the experience. If we deny this possibility, we may be limiting what God can do for us.
Click on the cover image below to preorder Flights of the Soul.