|Wednesday, January 23, 2008
VISIONS, APPARITIONS, AND OTHER DIVINE VISITATIONS
In antiquity it was common knowledge that all Gods, including the Christian/Jewish God, communicated by means of visions. As the word suggests, a vision is “seen” in the mind’s eye (so to speak). The ancients also saw apparitions, which, they claimed, were actually “something out there” that registered on their retinas. For example, Saul had the medium of Endor conjure up the spirit of the dead Hebrew prophet, Samuel (1 Sam 28:6-14). From these perspectives the resurrection “appearances” of Jesus in the gospels were either hallucinations (seen in the mind’s eye) or apparitions (something out there). Both “experiences” were commonplace in antiquity and still persist in modern society: people still claim to see visions and apparitions. Dreams, however, are different. A dream is clearly something “seen” in the mind since the receiver is asleep. All the ancient Gods were thought to communicate through dreams, as did the Christian/Jewish God (see for example Matt 1:20; 2:12, 13, 19).
The Greeks and Romans considered many things to be “visitations” or signs from the Gods. The flights of birds across certain quadrants of the sky portended success or failure. The Gods communicated through the entrails of animals, the croak of a raven, the song of a bird, or the fall of a tree across a road. Even the crowing of a rooster was thought to convey prophecies from the Gods, a view shared by the author of Mark’s Gospel, where a crowing rooster confirms a prophecy of Jesus (Mark 14:30, 72).
We post-Enlightenment moderns might well be skeptical of finding messages from the Gods or divine visitations in such natural occurrences, since it is in the nature of birds to sing and roosters to crow, whenever the notion strikes them. Nevertheless, ancient human beings conducted their lives on the basis of such commonplace occurrences they took to be divine messages—as well as the uncommon, such as an eclipse of the moon, or supposed astrological signs in the sky (like the star of Bethlehem, Matt 2:2, 9-10). But at least with natural occurrences something material was available, so a dubious person could challenge the interpretation of the event, suggest a new one, or deny altogether that it was a sign.
But claims of seeing visions, apparitions, or communing with the deity “in spirit” are a different matter. There was nothing “material” to see (even apparitions are not technically “material”). Voices in the head, apparitions, visions, visitations, and dreams are impossible to verify. In such cases skepticism seems the better part of wisdom. The receiver may be absolutely certain of the experience, but for the rest of us there are other options to explain it: the “receiver” of the “divine message” may just be impressionable to suggestion, a charlatan, or emotionally disturbed. If there seems to be substance to the claim, the receiver may simply have misunderstood the “phenomena” (if such there were). Even the saints of old did not always “see” correctly, and hence entertained “angels unawares” (Heb 13:2). Perhaps God, for whatever reason, has deceived the receiver, as when the Jewish/Christian God sent lying spirits to deceive his own prophets (1 Kgs 22:20-23). There is always the possibility that the receiver has been duped, not by the Gods, but by the forces of evil; for early Christians believed that Satan could transform himself into an “angel of light” (2 Cor 11:14). It is also entirely possible that purported receivers of such phenomena dupe themselves by wanting to “believe” something so strongly that they “see” or “hear” what they want. How can one with confidence objectively discriminate among these numerous possibilities for explaining claims of an extra-sensory experience?
The biggest problem, however, lies in the fact that receivers of supposed divine messages are limited by their humanity. The Gods may be perfect (or nearly so) but human beings are not. So the Gods may deliver their messages, but not even they can ensure that the message is accurately received, since overcoming a receiver’s natural abilities would violate human “free will.” The Gods may “speak” clearly enough but we humans, by virtue of our humanity, always “hear” imperfectly. It must be so, since our spiritual leaders tell us different things on God’s authority, and thereby we know their “free will” is fully operative and that the message is as much the purported receiver’s as the God’s. Even the Bible must be considered imperfect because the ancient “revelations” (if such they were) were communicated through receivers who were clearly conditioned by their ancient culture and society.
So how evaluate these claims of extra-sensory divine visitation? There is no way to be certain of the source of messages or visitations we think we receive. But if one assumes that God “is out there,” or “hereabouts,” or even communicating within us, the same caution and common sense we otherwise exercise in our daily lives is called for. Believing it to be so doesn’t make it so!
Posted by Charles Hedrick at 10:26am
Actually, the comments are timely since I'm about to teach a course called "Messing with the Bible" which is actually a course on how we interpret the Bible, or rather how we evaluate various ways of using the Bible and making claims about it. I'm not focusing on typical "methods" of interpretation, nor is it a how-to course in interpretation. In fact, I haven't seen anyone do what I'm doing (maybe I haven't looked far enough), which is simply trying to use some common sense in approaching various claims, whether liberal, conservative, pro or anti, or whatever. Many are quite willing to say "the Bible says..." followed by the claim and verses that prove the claim. How do we evaluate such claims? That's the sort of thing I'm after. And also sensitizing people to what we bring to the text--our gender, social location, religious experience (good or bad), etc. We have lots of letters to the editor claiming God backs up their various claims, and that's basically what I'm trying to address. I guess you could call it using your head when reading or making claims about the Bible.
What is a "post-Enlightenment modern" (capital E yours)?
Another good venture into reasonable understanding of our tradition. We were talking before the Friends' Meeting Sunday about how to know when the divine was prompting one to speak in meeting, or when not. Some interesting comments from among those of us sitting around the table. One said she could sense after speaking that it some times was right to offer her words to the meeting, and at other times she knew how much better it would have been to have just kept silent. That seems to me to be a good way along the road of maturity.
It is a funny thing that this article, of all things, is the one forwarded to me by my very intellectual uncle. I have been wrestling with the idea of divine visitations for some time. After Grandma Hedrick died my mother, your sister-in-law, received visits from an other-worldly apparition in the form of cold breath at night. Grandma Hedrick's husband, Arthur Maki, received other-worldly visitations by having his bed clothes taken from his bed at night while he slept. This went on for a few months after her passing. We figured it was her. My mother's mother, Biggie to me, was akin to Native American ancestry. She often times would speak to the birds and other animals. There is at least one time I have seen a hawk land not 10 feet from her and she spoke to it and it to her as if conversing in some language unknown to all besides the two engaged in conversation. All of this would seam odd to me being the pragmatist that I am. Ha! Actually, I have for the last 2 to 3 years had very real dreams which have become reality. In many circles this is known as deja vu. It is not just any deja vu. These were dreams which have lent themselves where the reality has played some interesting roles in the evolution of my life. I believe in these outer realm occurrences. I am glad that I have been assured of their role in my faith by my uncle. Thanks.