“Thou Nothing’s Younger Brother”: John Wesley On Life As A Dream
And how can we certainly distinguish between our dreams and our waking thoughts What criterion is there by which we may surely know whether we are awake or asleep It is true, as soon as we awake out of sleep, we know we have been in a dream, and are now awake. But how shall we know that a dream is such while we continue therein What is a dream To give a gross and superficial, not a philosophical, account of it: It is a series of persons and things presented to our mind in sleep, which have no being but in our own imagination. A dream, therefore, is a kind of digression from our real life. It seems to be a sort of echo of what was said or done a little when we were awake. Or, may we say, a dream is a fragment of life, broken off at both ends; not connected either with the part that goes before, or with that which follows after And is there any better way of distinguishing our dreams from our waking thoughts, than by this very circumstance It is a kind of parenthesis, inserted in life, as that is in a discourse, which goes on equally well either with it or without it. By this then we may infallibly know a dream, — by its being broken off at both ends; by its having no proper connection with the real things which either precede or follow it. – John Wesley, “Human Life A Dream”, Sermon 121, August, 1789
Back when I was in high school, there was a day that began as every day began. Despite my alarm going off, my father came in and woke me up. I tossed the covers aside, pulled my bathrobe on, pulled the slippers on my feet, and wandered downstairs. From 6:30 until 7:00 a.m. every day I practiced the piano. I sat at the piano and began running scales. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw my father open the door to the bottom of the stairs and call for me. I said, “But, Dad. I’m right here, practicing.” Clear as day, I hear him say – up the stairs, rather than looking at me – “No, you’re not.” It was at that moment that I awoke and realized I had actually dreamed myself in to my day in a way so vivid, so clear, so ordinary that I could not tell the difference between what I was dreaming and what was real. For now we’ll skip the horrid dream I had once of my father leaning over me to wake me, and I dreamed it a monster come to eat me and I took a swing at him and punched my father in the jaw.
I went through a period in my early 20’s when I had horrible nightmares. I would awake screaming. My brain is wired in such a way that I remember all these dreams, even the emotions of terror I experienced, usually associated with a place I refused to go yet was dragged without my consent. Except, of course, for the worst one: I was sitting in the Theater down in Sayre, PA watching a movie. My best childhood friend, who had committed suicide six months earlier, was sitting about four or so rows in front of me. I recognized him and called out to him. He stood and smiled a devilish grin at me. Then, as I watched, he began to laugh this horrible laugh, filled with fear – terror, even – and his skin and muscle melted away, leaving a rotten, half-naked skeleton standing in front of me, still laughing that horrible laugh that was little different than a scream of fear, his arm rising, a bony finger pointing at me. I awoke screaming, and the poor teenage boys in the cabin where I was their counselor awoke thinking I had hurt myself.
Suffice it so say dreams are odd things. I was surprised to see this title among Wesley’s sermons, which is, really, the only reason I read it. What I discovered is an odd combination of a pretty sophisticated eschatologically-based theological psychology and a kind of Platonism in which Wesley would seem to insist that what is “real” is in fact that which is not, nor cannot, be seen. It is at death that we realize, if such a word applies to that which Wesley calls “spirits”, what is and is not important. It seems that only the dead can and do know the more essential truths of our lives. When those sleepers awake, whether it is to be carried to the bosom of Abraham (yes, he uses the metaphor) or to the deepest pit of suffering where the dead rage against God and humanity, against life and death. Most of all they rage against those who have managed to escape the eternal torment that is theirs for not heeding Jesus’s words, “Your very soul is required of you this night!”
Wesley speaks at length upon what was both the common and more sophisticated notions of death and follows, including this odd Platonism, before turning to “religion”, specifically what he calls “Scriptural religion”:
What an admirable foundation for thus associating the ideas of time and eternity, of the visible and invisible world, is laid in the very nature of religion! For, what is religion, — I mean scriptural religion for all other is the vainest of all dreams. What is the very root of this religion It is Immanuel, God with us! God in man! Heaven connected with earth! The unspeakable union of mortal with immortal. For “truly our fellowship” (may all Christians say) “is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. God hath given unto us eternal life; and this life is in his Son.” What follows “He that hath the Son hath life: And he that hath not the Son of God hath not life.”
But how shall we retain a constant sense of this I have often thought, in my waking hours, “Now, when I fall asleep, and see such and such things, I will remember it was but a dream.” Yet I could not, while the dream lasted; and probably none else can. But it is otherwise with the dream of life; which we do remember to be such, even while it lasts. And if we do forget it, (as we are indeed apt to do,) a friend may remind us of it. It is much to be wished that such a friend were always near; one that would frequently sound in our ear, “Awake, thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead!” Soon you will awake into real life. You will stand, a naked spirit, in the world of spirits, before the face of the great God! See that you now hold fast that “eternal life, which he hath given you in his Son!”
The question for me is simple: What do we do with this sermon? My first instinct is to toss the Platonism, in particular, over the side as so much Oxonian baggage. This world, for all its cares and woes, its joys and sublime moments, is all too real. It is, indeed, the world to which God came in the Person of the Son, not to condemn but to save it. Yet, the idea that this life is nothing but a dream isn’t restricted to Platonism. It is a central tenet of Buddhism: That this life is not real, and true enlightenment comes, perhaps after many incarnations, when we not only understand this Truth but live it, with compassion for those still trapped in the dream of this life, suffering needlessly. It is not enough to dismiss what some would call “Platonism” or “escahtologically-based theological psychology” so easily.
Wesley makes the jump from ordinary considerations to the Incarnation, Salvation, and Sanctification as a way to wrestle with that which he has previously described. That is to say, those of us who live as Christians can become so forgetful of what is to come, far too mindful of this life’s cares and pleasures, that we forget that it is like a dream that passes. As Christians, ours is a life caught in and with the crucified and risen Savior. In company of like-minded persons, we can resist the temptations of this life that passes, and focus our hearts and minds on who and whose we are, singing with the angels before the throne, “Holy, holy, holy Lord Sabaoth!”
We cannot forget our duties to holiness of heart and life, to attend upon the ordinances of God, to worship and prayerful study of the Scriptures. These are the things in this life that keep us aware that, for all its “reality”, it is that which passes, while the love we have from God in Jesus Christ through the Spirit that brings us, together, life in this world yet not of this world shall never end. The “dream” of this life is, indeed, that to which we are called, without ever forgetting that, now risen with Christ through baptism, we stand naked before the Throne of God. Both realities are significant. Both are “true” in the sense they determine how we are to live. We are to live within this tension, this not-yet-fully-realized eschatology of our personal judgment before God on the one hand, and the life we are called to live together with others here in this world.
Dreams are funny things. Sometimes we go for days, even weeks, never remembering what our brains have been doing while we sleep. Others, including me, have what are called “lucid dreams”, in which we are aware we dreaming, exerting at least a bit of control over what happens. Finally, we shall all be like the children of Israel, who when they heard they were returning to Jerusalem and the Land given them by the LORD, said together, “We were like those who dream.” What is, is. What will be may well be more wonderful, more powerful, more real than the deepest dream from which we awakened wondering at its power.