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Nietzsche’s Dream World

Bad dreams? Freud thinks he knows what they mean. But Christianity has a bigger picture.

It can be hard enough to actually get sleep during college, but sometimes when we finally can lie down nightmares will plague us.

Midterms, finals, relationships, friendships, family, money — it’s all part of the college environment that haunts us both day and night. The worst are those dreams where you’re late to class and you miss your final, or you get to class but realize you don’t have your books or term paper and your professor yells at you in front of everyone.

In my final undergraduate semester, I had the (not so wonderful) privilege of taking a theory class. As a typical theory class goes, I was asked to study all the “profound” traditional thinkers such as Sigmund Freud and Friedrich Nietzsche.

In my past classes, theory had always been difficult for me to understand and I managed to get through them only by pretending I knew what I was talking about. This time, however, we were studying dreams, so for once I didn’t want to just pretend. I wanted to understand theory and, like my peers, I wanted to somehow apply it to my life. So I picked up my three-inch books and began to read Freud and Nietzsche’s thoughts on the meaning of dreams.

Two of these theorists’ most influential pieces are Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams and Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music. In both works, the authors contend that dreams are unconscious illusions and tools used to fulfill desires — often those desires society deems unacceptable. Also known as “wish fulfillment,” dreams supposedly are what people use to escape the reality of life’s disappointments.

Freud asserts that every dream has some sort of secret “meaning” or “analysis” for your life. Even negative or anxiety dreams are part of wish fulfillment. Thus, every dream must be examined and interpreted based on what happened in your past, or what happened the day before the dream. After that analysis, you can see how the dream fulfills your desires and wishes.

For example, if you have that dream where you are late to class and miss your final, Freud would look at all the events in your life and the lives of those around you in order to interpret your dream. Perhaps you were mad at your friend the day before. If so, your dream could possibly be fulfilling an unconscious desire that you hope your friend is late for class, not yourself. Freud also contends that if you can’t find the wish fulfillment in your dream, that doesn’t mean it isn’t there. In fact, it’s always there, but the dream acts as a disguised fulfillment of a repressed wish.

Initially I accepted these theories as sensible and reasonable. I found myself being influenced not only by the theories themselves, but also by my professor and classmate’s opinions on the subject. I began to believe that maybe the theories contained substantial validity.

Thankfully, I kept studying. After reading Freud and Nietzsche’s beliefs on dreams, I turned to their beliefs on religion. Religion, they suppose, is also an illusion people use to escape the reality of life or the reality of tragedy. Concepts of God, they claim, help us run away from the truth of disappointment, thus making us feel good inside. In a nutshell, (1) there is no God, and (2) the point of life is to do whatever you want as long as it’s good for society’s self-created “values.” Freud and Nietzsche’s points are the building blocks of atheism.

Because atheism is integral to Freud and Nietzsche’s worldviews, every theory of theirs has to be evaluated in light of that view. When their dream theories are kept within the context of atheism, the theories themselves also become atheistic. A “God” is an illusion; a “dream” is an illusion. People use both of them to make their lives happy and sane — to fulfill every subconscious wish and desire. Dreams have absolutely nothing to do with morality, but rather the opposite: they have to do with being an egotistical and selfish person — the life Freud and Nietzsche encourage people to have.

When I saw the connection between Freud and Nietzsche’s beliefs on dreams and religion, it raised some questions I needed to address with a Christian worldview:

  1. Should we study secular theorists? I would argue yes. Doing so only helps us to better understand apologetics and the reasons for believing what we believe. “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have” (1 Peter 3:15).
  2. Is there any truth in what Freud and Nietzsche say? That depends on what they are saying in a given case. In this case, Freud and Nietzsche’s beliefs on dreams weren’t influenced so much by facts or studies as atheistic philosophies. For them, God wasn’t even a possibility. This severely limits — darkens, really — their ability to see the world clearly. By contrast, Christians are free to have a broader view of creation, simply because we know the Creator. “We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5).
  3. When Christians look for answers, should they apply to their lives what secular theorists teach? Again, it depends on whether that’s consistent with God’s word or contradictory to it. I couldn’t apply Freud and Nietzsche’s dream theories to my own life. “For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness?” (2 Corinthians 6:14).

While I was at rest with what I had found, I still wanted to know why I had certain dreams. I tried searching the scriptures to see what God says, but I found that this was one of those subject matters where God doesn’t give a clear-cut answer. In fact, the New Testament is largely silent on the issue. I concluded that it would remain one of those mysteries in which God declares, “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:9).

I no longer dream about midterms, relationships, and cruel professors. I do, though, dream about other stressful things, like taking care of my family, finances and making it through graduate school. I’ve come to the simple conclusion that I may always have negative dreams, but I don’t need to let that plague me.

In any given case a dream may reflect what’s going on in my mind, or it may be from Satan (spiritual warfare is real), or it may be from God (as Scripture frequently shows us). It may have an important message for me or it may be a deception. But in no case is a dream bigger than God. For guidance I can rely upon, I can turn to His Word.

And, when I wake up, I’ll need to take it a step further: I’ll need to pray for that person, place, thing, or situation that annoys me or puts stress on my life. Freud and Nietzsche may have answers for dreams and God may be silent, but I would rather have no explicit answer on dreams and a real Deity who takes my anxieties, than a feel-good answer on dreams and a hopeless life based on illusion.

Copyright 2003 Sandi Greene. All rights reserved.

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About the Author

Sandi Greene

Sandi Greene and her husband, Bob, live in Phoenix.


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