A Dreamy Theodicy

May 2, 2008    By: Jacob J @ 10:41 pm   Category: Theology

Every night I go to sleep and have the most terrible dreams imaginable. I am torn to shreds by wild animals, my children die, I am forced to kill home intruders to protect my family, I show up to finals three hours late or without having studied, I am maimed, and a thousand variations on that theme. Occasionally, I am Superman, but even then, I usually develop some sort of flying disability just when it becomes important and I sort of drag along the ground rather than flying properly.

While I am dreaming, the horrific things I experience often seem as real as anything I have ever experienced. My dreams can be truly terrifying. My heart really does race. We can say “it was just a dream” once we have woken up, but that doesn’t help us in the moment of pain during the actual dream. The beautiful thing about dreams is that they fade away into forgetfullness shortly after waking. I can’t remember my dreams from last night, for example. But, the fact that I don’t remember my dream does not change the fact that while I was being mauled by a bear last night it was terrifying and painful. Really painful.

Now, I have noticed that in discussions of the problem of evil, dreams don’t come up too often. I find that interesting. Given the frequency of bad dreams, and the sheer numbers of hours we spend dreaming, you would think this kind of suffering would get a mention or two when we list our grievances. But it does not. Why? The answer seems obvious enough, it is that we forget our bad dreams and the reality of the experience fades as we wake up. I am forced to conclude that I am not very upset about terrible suffering as long as I forget it. Could this realization provide the basis for a theodicy? If I wake up in the spirit world some day and my memory of this life fades away like a dream, will the problem of evil look different than it does now? Maybe like a person who is morally indignant about bad dreams?

What would such a theodicy look like? It would not explain suffering by arguing that it is unreal, because I really do suffer during my bad dreams. It would not be an argument that suffering is explained by a God’s priviledged perspective. After all, it is not perspective that keeps me from being angry about my dreams. Rather, the trick seems to be that if I forget something, it is as if it never happened. It is hard to be angry about things I don’t remember. That’s not to say it things I don’t remember can’t have any lasting effects. It is entirely possible that we live out hypothetical situations in our dreams as a way for our minds to sort out various responses to possible crisis scenarios. When my brother came to my mother as a small boy with his hand over his eye and blood running down his face from under his hand, my mother says she was amazed at how calmly and quickly she reacted. Who knows but what her response was due in part to living out similar scenarios every night of her adult life. You don’t have to remember something for it to have had an impact. However, if I don’t remember it, I am never very angry about it. Maybe the evils of this life will be like that some day.

It seems like a pretty crappy theodicy, but then, I do let a lot of pretty terrible stuff slide if it was just a dream. So, maybe there’s something to it afterall. I don’t know.

20 Comments »

  1. Isak Dinesen, in Out of Africa, after explaining that she has never had a bad dream, and is familiar with them only by hearing other people, says this:

    “People who dream when they sleep at night know of a special kind of happiness which the world of the day holds not, a placid ecstasy, and ease of heart, that are like honey on the tongue. They also know that the real glory of dreams lies in their atmosphere of unlimited freedom. It is not the freedom of the dictator, who enforces his own will on the world, but the freedom of the artist, who has no will, who is free of will. The pleasure of the true dreamer does not lie in the substance of the dream, but in this: that there things happen without any interference from his side, and altogether outside his control. Great landscapes create themselves, long splendid views, rich and delicate colours, roads, houses, which he has never seen or heard of… ”

    ~

    Comment by Thomas Parkin — May 2, 2008 @ 11:09 pm

  2. the trick seems to be that if I forget something, it is as if it never happened. It is hard to be angry about things I don’t remember.

    My experience suggests this fits true repentance and forgiveness better than suffering.

    My guess; Christ remembers His suffering allowing Him to also feel our pain.

    Comment by Howard — May 3, 2008 @ 9:17 am

  3. Interesting post Jacob.

    There are some obvious problems we face with trying too use the “this life is as a dream” approach to explaining evil here. The main problem is that there are all kinds of things in this life we hope we don’t forget entirely. Among them are the people who we love here. If this life proves to be as forgettable as a dream the good news is the pain and evil in this life goes away as the memory of it fades into oblivion; the bad news is the joy and love and relationships go away as the memory of them fades into oblivion. How do you propose we throw the “bathwater” memories away without throwing the “baby” out as well?

    Comment by Geoff J — May 3, 2008 @ 3:16 pm

  4. By the way — This idea of yours reminds me of Heber C. Kimball’s multiple mortal probations views (though inverted a little). Here is one of the famous quotes on the subject:

    What I do not to-day, when the sun goes down, I lay down to sleep, which is typical of death; and in the morning I rise and commence my work where I left it yesterday. That course is typical of the probations we take. But suppose that I do not improve my time to-day, I wake up to-morrow and find myself in the rear; and then, if I do not improve upon that day, and again lay down to sleep, on awaking, I find myself still in the rear. This day’s work is typical of this probation, and the sleep of every night is typical of death, and rising in the morning is typical of the resurrection. They are days labours, and it is for us to be faithful to-day, tomorrow, and every day. (Journal of Discourses 4:329)

    Of course in the HCK version each mortal life is equated with being awake and the spirit existence between mortal probations is the sleeping/dreaming part. But it is not too big of a jump to switch that and make mortal life the passing thing that is entire forgotten later (via veils of forgetfulness). I know you aren’t a fan of MMP but I find the connection between your suggested dream theodicy and an MMP/veils of forgetfulness theodicy interesting.

    Comment by Geoff J — May 3, 2008 @ 4:05 pm

  5. Howard,

    Why don’t you think that statement fits with suffering?

    Geoff,

    It depends what you mean when you say we want to remember the people who we love here. I hope to continue to associate with all those people in the next life, which means I am not dependent on remembering much of what happened on earth. As a point of comparison, my relationships with my siblings today are largely unrelated to anything that went on in our relationships growing together.

    I hadn’t considered the HCK quote, but it is interesting that he used the sleeping/waking metaphor. The strangeness of veils of forgetfulness does seem relevant.

    Comment by Jacob J — May 3, 2008 @ 4:54 pm

  6. Jacob: I hope to continue to associate with all those people in the next life, which means I am not dependent on remembering much of what happened on earth.

    Well you’d have to remember who you associated with here if you want to meet up with them again right? If this life (and the evil we experience) fades aways like some bad dream then how will you even remember who your dream/life family was here?

    That is my point. You seem to want it both ways — remember the good parts but forget the bad. I just don’t know how that makes sense.

    Comment by Geoff J — May 3, 2008 @ 7:09 pm

  7. Jacob J #5,

    D&C 122:7-8 …know thou, my son, that all these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good. The Son of Man hath descended below them all. Art thou greater than he?

    What is the point of gaining experience if you can’t take it with you?

    Comment by Howard — May 3, 2008 @ 7:14 pm

  8. Well you’d have to remember who you associated with here if you want to meet up with them again right? If this life (and the evil we experience) fades aways like some bad dream then how will you even remember who your dream/life family was here?

    If we wanted to develop sucha concept, perhaps we could push for some idea of the sealing ordinances being us binding to our selves those things we wish to keep.

    I remember a lot of dreams I’ve had. Especially the weird ones.

    Comment by Matt W. — May 3, 2008 @ 8:53 pm

  9. Howard,

    What is the point of gaining experience if you can’t take it with you?

    That’s not to say it things I don’t remember can’t have any lasting effects. It is entirely possible that we live out hypothetical situations in our dreams as a way for our minds to sort out various responses to possible crisis scenarios. When my brother came to my mother as a small boy with his hand over his eye and blood running down his face from under his hand, my mother says she was amazed at how calmly and quickly she reacted. Who knows but what her response was due in part to living out similar scenarios every night of her adult life. You don’t have to remember something for it to have had an impact.

    I don’t remember 1st grade (I have maybe two isolated memories (I have a notoriously bad memory)), but that doesn’t change the fact that I learned things in 1st grade that made me who I am. Experience gets baked in.

    Comment by Jacob J — May 3, 2008 @ 10:13 pm

  10. You don’t have to remember something for it to have had an impact.

    Sure, but significant memories will have much more impact than “baked in experience” that one cannot clearly recall.

    Comment by Howard — May 3, 2008 @ 10:27 pm

  11. Jacob: I don’t remember 1st grade

    I don’t think that works if we were talking about a theodicy. If your family was murdered or any number of other awful things happened while you were in the first grade you would remember that very well. It seems like you are conflating this dream idea and this “I can’t remember [insert non extraordinary time from past here]“. They seem like two very different ideas to me.

    Comment by Geoff J — May 3, 2008 @ 10:28 pm

  12. Geoff,

    That is my point. You seem to want it both ways — remember the good parts but forget the bad. I just don’t know how that makes sense.

    First, I should note that I am not putting this forward as my own theodicy, it is just a thought I’ve kicked around from time to time. That said, in the scenario I have suggested, the good parts would be forgotten with the bad parts, I am not trying to have it both ways. I have in mind that we would remember our lives long enough to rendevous with our families on the other side, but that at some point everything from this life would fade away and be forgotten. The good parts of this life that we forget would be replaced by new experiences in heaven (which I assume will be good, despite the ZD thread), but the bad experiences would not be replaced since it is heaven.

    Even if none of that is true (quite possible), I still find it fascinating that we give so little thought to the terribleness of bad dreams. Amnesia is a fantastic analgesic.

    As a thought experiement, it is interesting to consider how you would react to the suggestion of having surgery performed without pain killers, but with a perfectly effective drug to remove all memories of the surgery after it was over. I think most of us would opt out of that option, but when it comes to bad dreams it seems like that is a pretty accurate description of how it works. Shockingly, none of us seems to upset about it, which is what I find fascinating.

    Comment by Jacob J — May 3, 2008 @ 10:28 pm

  13. Howard, I’m not sure how you can tell that, but okay.

    Geoff, my comment to Howard about forgetting 1st grade was in repsponse to his assertion that if I don’t remember something I couldn’t have gained experience and learning from it. I am not sure what you think I am conflating.

    Comment by Jacob J — May 3, 2008 @ 10:31 pm

  14. Matt,

    After that movie, why am I not surprised to hear you have weird dreams?

    Comment by Jacob J — May 3, 2008 @ 10:37 pm

  15. Jacob,

    By bringing up amnesia i believe you are scraping the surface a massive theological conundrum in Mormonism that no one seems to want to talk about. I posted on it before but felt like people mostly brushed the idea off.

    Here is the problem as I see it. If we are beginningless then I think it is safe to assume we have been forming family-like personal relationships for eternities before we arrived here. So in essence it seems likely to me that we had the equivalent of a family before we got here. Then we arrive here and forget everything — we forget all of eternity past. So it is as if we are created ex nihilo in some ways. We are placed in families (of no choice of our own) and we (most of us at least) get to choose a spouse here. So then we die and the common guess is that we remember our pre-earth life again. So why should we assume that our new relationships formed here in a few decades would be more important than the possible family-like relationships we formed over billions of years before this little “earth-camp”. Wouldn’t our earth relationships be the equivalent of summer camp friends for a kid? When I was on my mission the relationships I had with people there were important to me. But after coming back home to my real home and family guess how many people from my mission I keep up with? Zero.

    So I agree with you that comparing this life to a dream has some merit. And I agree that it has some useful implications when it comes to theodicy. I just think it also does a lot of damage to the commonly held Mormon beliefs about the long term cohesion of earthly families. (Another topic we have discussed recently).

    Comment by Geoff J — May 3, 2008 @ 10:54 pm

  16. “We are placed in families (of no choice of our own)”

    Why do you assume this? I’ve always assumed that we are born into families with whom we had some association previously. Unless our births are totally random, which I don’t see any reason to believe. Maybe I just heard Saturday’s Warrior once too often when I was a kid.

    But I do agree that we don’t know much about the relationship between our pre-earth life and this life. Not only that, but the unpleasant nature of how some folk doctrine has been used makes it a tough subject to talk about.

    ~

    Comment by Thomas Parkin — May 3, 2008 @ 11:20 pm

  17. Thomas: I’ve always assumed that we are born into families with whom we had some association previously.

    If we have have robust free will (LFW) then the future is open so there is no way to exhaustively know who will meet and marry in this life before it happens. That makes this life entirely improvisational with God intervening along the way to keep the plot basically moving where he wants. That means we have no way of knowing who will marry who and who will have children. All of that adds up making it impossible for families to be pre-formed at the foundation of the world. Seems to me that at best God could have said: “Ok, Mr. and Mrs. J are fooling around right now… which one of you male spirits is interested in becoming their son on earth?” Maybe I said “I’ll give it a whirl”. But how could anybody know if Mr. and Mrs. J were going to choose to have more children if they have real free will? Seems to me that when we recognize that we must reject exhaustive foreknowledge to embrace robust free will/agency then we also must reject the other theological assumptions that rely on exhaustive foreknowledge.

    Comment by Geoff J — May 4, 2008 @ 9:17 am

  18. On a different note that is not philosophical in nature. It sounds to me as if you are having Night Terrors. They seem very real, they are vivid, and lucid, you can usually remember them, they can cause actual pain, and some people harm themselves trying to get away from whatever it is that is trying to get them in the nightmare.

    The studies I am aware of have linked them to a drastic and fast drop in blood sugar levels. Often due to a suger spike earlier in the evening due to something that has been eaten or drank. They generally happen between midnight and two A.M. The best solution to it is to not eat late in the evening. Particularly anything with sugar, or simple carbs. Eating earlier in the evening allows your blood sugar levels to drop and level out before going to sleep so the effect on your brain is not as significant, the night terrors will diminish greatly, if not completely.

    They are called Night Terrors, you can do your own research on them. I used to have them frequently, demons, witches, devils, bears, rapists, plane crashes, usually being chased or mauled, unable to move or scream. They truly are terrifying. I am sorry you are having them. I hope that this little tidbit and some research can give you some relief. Let me know if it helps!

    Comment by MontanaMuse — May 5, 2008 @ 1:36 pm

  19. This may have already been discussed in the comments and I wish I had more time to read them all. I’m just basing this off your original post.

    I read it this way: in the end, if we find ourselves in a situation analogous to waking up from a bad dream, in which the horrific effects of the dream fade away and do not continue to traumatize us, then this may be an acceptable response to how God might respond to the problem of evil.

    If this is what you are trying to say, you are not alone. Marilyn McCord Adams, in her book Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God explains that the hope for and faith in the Beatific Vision after the end of this life is a necessary and sufficient theodicy. In the Beatific Vision we stand in the glorious presence of God, never to suffer again. The presence of God is itself sufficient for supreme happiness and joy. More relevant to your post, however, is that all former suffering will fade away to nothing; we will not remember our sufferings and will instead be suffused with divine glory and goodness.

    Aside from the fact that most Mormons would want to make drastic revisions or additions to this concept of the Afterlife, it’s not satisfying as a theodicy. At least to me, it seems that if it is one day the case that I simply forget all the painful experiences I once experienced, how can those experiences be meaningful in any way? And if they are not meaningful, is this life simply nihilistic? Who’s to say that the same “forgetfulness” does not also apply to my good experiences? Why couldn’t I just forget those as well and simply dwell in unalloyed bliss in the presence of God? In sum, such a view makes the accomplishments and experiences (whether good or bad) of this life meaningless, and therefore worthless. In Mormon thought this life with all its joys and horrendous evils is intimately tied to the next life. Our experiences shape the character that we will take with us into the next world. I think our understanding of the atonement is the best answer we have to the problem of evil. Christ becomes one with us in all our pain and suffering, thereby directly making himself responsible (and therefore just) for the evils we experience as a result of living in a chaotic world populated by free human beings. The healing effect of the atonement produces the conditions whereby we can positively and triumphantly face all of our experiences in all their glorious or gruesome details and be at peace with ourselves; it enables us to positively respond to our experiences in a way that allows them to create us rather than destroy us. This view necessarily requires that we do not forget any of our earthly experiences.

    I do believe that some sort of eschatology that views the next life as qualitatively much better than this one is a necessary condition for a sound theodicy, but I don’t believe eschatology alone can also be a sufficient condition, upon which a theodicy can be singularly formed without reference to any other component to make it work (I don’t think this is Jacob J’s view, but it is Adams’s view). There must be some sort of accounting for what we experience now in this world.

    Comment by Jacob B. — May 5, 2008 @ 3:46 pm

  20. MontanaMuse,

    My son has had night terrors (I am pretty sure), but I am lucky in that I only have regular bad dreams. I appreciate the concern though and I will try your suggestion out with my son if he starts having them again.

    Jacob B,

    Good comment, thanks. I agree with you that this doesn’t make a very good theodicy, but maybe for a slightly different reason than you suggest. As I mentioned in the post, I think it is reasonable to argue that the experiences were meaningful even if we forget them based on the fact that they shape who we become independent of our memory (to some extent).

    My reason for thinking this doesn’t work, in the final analysis, is that if we say that they experiences were still meaningful, then our real answer to the problem of evil is tangled up in that meaning itself. Was there no other way to get the same benefits without the painful experience? (etc.) Ultimately, we want some explanation for why God didn’t prevent more evil, and even if we forget about our pain someday and thereby forget that we used to be concerned about the problem of evil, it doesn’t answer the original question. So, I think your final paragraph makes an excellent point which I agree with. Thanks for saying it very well.

    You may wonder why I posted this if I don’t think it is a workable theodicy. I suppose it is because I continue to be fascinated by the way we react to bad dreams. The thought experiment at the end of #12 fascinates me, for example.

    Comment by Jacob J — May 5, 2008 @ 4:22 pm

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