Dreaming has always been a huge part of my life. When I was a little girl, I would run to my mom in the morning, before I was even completely awake, and tell her what I had been dreaming, It would seem very important, I mean, desperately, terribly important, to share whatever journey I had been on.
I would have repeating dreams; dreams with choose-your-own-adventure options; dreams with strange symbols and images and words. I must have known that my dreams were valuable in a particular way to my waking mind, my manner of knowing, and even my concepts of reality because quite early on in my life I started to try to understand what dreaming actually was. I remember getting a book called Far Journeys (or something like that) about lucid dreaming. I remember learning about dream paralysis, which was a cause of great relief, since I occasionally experienced it and had to overcome the sense of terror it created. I developed an early and avid interest in dream symbolism and psychology. I was relieved when I finally learned the name Carl Jung. In short, dreaming was central to my total experience of mind.
As I have become older, I am aware that dreaming has also been central to my theology. As a trained, scholarly type, schooled in research methods and such, it hasn’t always been entirely obvious that my dreaming was, in its own way, revelatory. Or, to put it another way, it hasn’t always been clear that I should follow my dreams and trust in their truths. Dreams are foggy and subjective. There are not rubrics for assessing the validity of what they show. The Church doesn’t have a specific theological category for individual dream revelations. They sometimes counter things we are instructed to believe from the tried-and-true tradition. Dreaming has felt often like a secret best left unspoken in any professional sense.
However, this all has become burdensome. And, as a result, I have started to follow my dreams. It is fun to say that, that is, to say, “I follow my dreams.” It sounds so light-hearted and trite that it makes me laugh. For, since I have been following my dreams, I have found myself going on almost epic quests to see or touch or learn about poignant nighttime disclosures. I literally get in cars and book plane tickets to go where my dreams lead me.
Most recently, I have been on a mission to fulfill a two-year old dream about the Water People of St. Simons Island, Georgia. This now posh vacation resort community was the long-ago site of an early slave revolt, where the Igbo people, enslaved from the African coast, after having survived the Middle Passage, elected to walk chained together into the water rather than to be auctioned by their tormentors. Having dreamed elaborately of these Water People, I made a many day voyage to touch the waters where this event occurred. The voyage took me through the Whitney Plantation, outside of New Orleans, Louisiana and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. After days of driving (and crossing bridges and waterways that terrify me as a driver), we arrived finally in St. Simons, but I wasn’t sure what to do once I got there. What purpose did I have, and what little ritual might I dream up to help mark this occasion?
The children and my mother rode with me, each of whom was especially touched by some aspect of the American institution of slavery. My oldest, Val, could not get over the fact that his school had never taught him about the domestic slave trade. Nate, who is only nine, was overwhelmed that children could ever had been enslaved, separated from their families, and tormented cruelly. My mom was shocked, while visiting the lynching memorial, to learn that people were still being murdered in this terroristic fashion during her own lifetime and in her growing-up years. I myself came to a better understanding of the relationship between slavery and the modern prison system, as well as the incomparable scope of the economics of slavery.
Yet, despite all this, I did not have my great lesson until I went into the waters of St. Simons Island. Holding my youngest child’s hand, I asked him if he understood why we came. He said “to be respectful.” I asked him if he wanted to go where all these people had been, to go down with them, in order to rise again with them. He said, “yes, but we have to go all the way under.” This little child held my hand, and we walked into the water, submerging ourselves three times. Sea birds flew overour heads, circling and diving for fish. We didn’t say anything, but afterward we lay by the low surf and collected little shells in our open palms, with only our noses poking out of the water. I am left wondering, what will he think of such things when he gets older. He did this thing, and quickly returned to playing in the sand. But, afterwards, honest to God, I heard him humming Wade in the Water.
I, for my part, went jogging the next morning and decided to try to locate the precise (if disputed) location of the Igbo revolt. It is situated in Dunbar Creek, which is today a lavish, million dollar community. The water there is now privately owned and guarded by no trespassing signs and protective home-owners, walking their dogs. As I furtively snapped pictures, I was encouraged to leave by one weary resident. I am sure this residential community doesn’t really want a historic marker popping up that would reclaim or unsettle the meaning of this sacred place. Nor, I am sure, do they want oddballs like me wandering around, bringing flowers to the shore, merely to say,“I heard you calling in my sleep.”
What strange ontology! That would be the observation from my one-time philosophy teacher. What an odd theology! Since, of course, it is entirely unclear where such dreams originate.
But, I did really, truly learn something from my voyages, and it is this: Christianity, as a religious system did not tacitly endure slavery against its better judgment. Christianity did not unwittingly contribute to slavery on account of a few unfortunate biblical passages. Rather, colonial Christianity was largely the vehicle of slavery. The dehumanization of enslaved persons was so extreme that it could not have persisted independently of a framework of justification that made it morally and philosophically permissible and even proper. Telling this story is not a recovery of a lost narrative. It is, furthermore, not a black history narrative, or a dive into black culture. It is, rather, the story. No honest, responsible, ecological Christianity can exist in the world today that does not understand its part in the distortions of humanity and environment wrought in its name.
I will be digesting this insight for some time. There is so much here to think about. And, I will also continue to follow my dreams. They are teaching me more than I’ve learned in all the books in my library. They are fantastic in their volume, and, who knows, perhaps, someday, they will lead me to a unicorn.
Natalie Kertes Weaver, Ph.D., is Chair and Professor of Religious Studies at Ursuline College in Pepper Pike, Ohio. Natalie’s academic books include: Marriage and Family: A Christian Theological Foundation (Anselm, 2009); Christian Thought and Practice: A Primer (Anselm, 2012); and The Theology of Suffering and Death: An Introduction for Caregivers (Routledge, 2013). Natalie’s most recent book is Made in the Image of God: Intersex and the Revisioning of Theological Anthropology (Wipf & Stock, 2014). Natalie has also authored two art books: Interior Design: Rooms of a Half-Life and Baby’s First Latin. Natalie’s areas of interest and expertise include: feminist theology; theology of suffering; theology of the family; religion and violence; and (inter)sex and theology. Natalie is a married mother of two sons, Valentine and Nathan. For pleasure, Natalie studies classical Hebrew, poetry, piano, and voice.