Visionary and culture together interpret what God reveals in altered states of consciousness.
Visionary—in the biblical sense—concerns more than just sight. A visionary sees visions and hears messages, soundtracks that go along with what he or she sees. This is reported throughout Scripture and the history of the Church and many other religious traditions.
When a prophet or mystic experiences a vision or revelation, from where does the soundtrack come? What role does the human nervous system play in Biblical visions? Watch the video below…
Techniques of the Visionary
Yesterday we talked about techniques by which one can induce an altered state of consciousness experience from “the bottom up.” This means stimulating the autonomous nervous system (bottom) which affects the brain (up). If you want a brief but intense ASC experience, you need to apply stimulation to either the sympathetic or parasympathetic nervous systems. Either will produce a trance state.
But it turns out that human beings can also induce a trance from “the top down.” This involves intense concentration called meditation by the Catholic tradition. In “positive” meditation, you focus on an idea or an image or feeling (e.g., the Sacred Heart). Through this intense focusing, everything else in your mind shuts off, and you enter trance. It begins in the cerebral cortex (where associations are made), and eventually descends into the whole nervous system. Neuroscience can graphically represent the resulting physiological changes.
There is also negative meditation, found in Hindu and Buddhist traditions, but also practiced by Benedictines. This is a complete surrender of the mind—not thinking about something, but clearing the mind, emptying the mind. This induces a “top down” ASC experience which lasts far longer than anything achieved from the bottom-up approach.
From the most ancient human times, people have devised ways to enter into ecstatic trance. They have also relied on traditional, culturally-informed ways to interpret their visions.
The Visionary Ezekiel
A long time ago, on the plains of what is now Southern Iraq, a thirty-year old exile named Ezekiel, sometime around June or July 593 BCE, slipped into trance (Ezekiel 1:1-2). As we read his edited account of his visionary experiences, we should be wary of bad translation. Despite the anachronism-prone RSV and NABRE translations, verse one should not read “heavens,” but “sky vaults.” Ezekiel is talking about the physical sky and realm of God, not the Beatific Vision of later Christians. A good piece of advice—keep heaven in catechism and liturgies, please, and never blundering Bible translations in the Bible.
Anyway, the visionary Ezekiel sees the physical sky opened (Isaiah 63:19b). What does that mean? Can humans actually peer into the realm of God unless someone there opens things up? No; and the text assumes this by using the passive voice that God opened up the sky vaults so as to allow Ezekiel to see into the divine realm. Notice Genesis 7:11 where God opens windows in the dome-like vault of the sky so rain can come down.
What??!! Dome? Sky vaults? What about space the final frontier? What about meteorological stuff and atmospheric science? Obviously, the visionary Ezekiel and the author of Genesis 7 don’t belong to our cultural consensus reality.
What Ezekiel Saw
And what did the visionary Ezekiel then see? He saw “divine visions.” In other words, Ezekiel has visions of realities not usually granted to the human eye. He saw things in the realm of God—alternate reality. And without God making an opening for him, Ezekiel would not have been able to see what he saw. He is in an altered state of consciousness.
The Visionary Interprets the Vision
How would this visionary, Ezekiel, have interpreted and understood his experience? Ezekiel was a priest (Ezekiel 1:3). He was an elite, so unlike the vast majority of his people, reading and writing were available to him. Because of this he could draw from various written sources so as to interpret his ASC experience—Psalm 18; 1 Kings 22:19-22; Isaiah 6:1-8; and many other resources and lore. These were part of the latent discourse in Ezekiel’s culture. When interpreting an ASC experience, the visionary normally avails oneself of the cultural treasury so as to make sense of what happened.
Reading Ezekiel 1:1-3, curiously, there is a shift following verse 1 from the first person singular to the third person singular. Therefore it seems that at some point after Ezekiel finished writing, a later editor tinkered with the prophet’s original composition. This later, unknown editor explains that “the word of the Lord” came to the visionary Ezekiel. What does that mean?
Essentially the report says that Ezekiel heard God speaking to him. We can presume Ezekiel heard this in Hebrew or some related Semitic language. We can also presume what Ezekiel heard was intelligible to him. So this was a vision with a soundtrack. From where do visions acquire their soundtracks?
Origin of the Vision’s Soundtrack
Context scholar John Pilch explains what anthropological research and cognitive neuroscience indicate—visions don’t come with soundtracks. That’s true with any vision experienced by any human visionary—Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Samuel, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Jesus, Paul, and John in Patmos, Joan of Arc, Bernadette Soubirous, and the three children at Fatima.
So from where does the soundtrack come? It gets provided by the culture peppered by personal experiences. The soundtrack of an ASC experience comes from the latent cultural discourse of the visionary. Therefore the visionary, informed by his or her culture, provides the soundtrack.
As Pilch explains, the science shows that experiences of alternate reality in trance are vacuous. The visionary receives a silent movie while in ASC, pictures missing a soundtrack. So, in order to interpret the silent movie, the culturally-informed visionary PROVIDES the soundtrack.
Because this is so, Ezekiel and other visionaries don’t just report their ASC experience, but also INTERPRET what they report! Pilch explains that research into ASC experiences shows that these visions are mixed up, scrambled, like “an oscillating spiral,” moving forward and backward, jumbled up. If the visionary does not write down his or her experience immediately afterward, memory of it will be lost! And in writing it down and pondering on it over time, the visionary revises it, and reinterprets the experience, later on.
Messy Interpretations of Messy Inspirations
Inspiration is a messy business! The human visionary cannot escape imposing some kind of order upon what he or she sees. This is where the soundtrack comes in. Drawing from culture and tradition, and seasoned richly with personal experience, the visionary supplies the soundtrack. In the beginning was the Word? Perhaps it is better to say that in the beginning was the interpretation.
Research from the Cuyamungue Institute confirms that trance soundtracks are normally heard in the native tongue of the visionary. So when the Lukan Paul explains to Agrippa of his ASC encounter with the Risen Jesus (Acts 26:9-21), we can infer that Jesus spoke to Paul (i.e., the soundtrack Paul provided) in Aramaic (see Joseph Fitzmyer, “New Jerome Biblical Commentary” 79:15).
Even today Christians in United States Charismatic groups sometimes report having visions. We shouldn’t dismiss or discount their reports. After all, all humans are capable of such ASC experiences.
But it shouldn’t surprise anyone that the soundtrack they provide sounds an awful lot like the King James Version! As Pilch explains, “Bible-Speak” is common in such United States Christian experiences. That’s just the visionary, in this case a “Bible-based Pentecostal type,” trying to make sense of a very real encounter she or he had with Holy and Absolute Mystery by way of personal tradition. What gets provided is an interpretation, a soundtrack heavily influenced by verbatim quotes of a popular translation of Scripture where verses are randomly selected and glued together.
The Visionary Always Provides the Soundtrack!
So whether it is Moses or Juan Diego, Mary Magdalene or Maria Faustyna Kowalska, the visionary always provides the soundtrack. Likewise, the soundtrack always reflects the culture of the visionary. In ASC, should someone see a constellational throne in the sky or a woman clothed with the sun, that same visionary, informed by culture, will provide the interpretation of what is seen—the soundtrack.
So is that the same thing as saying that the visionary is just making it all up? Not at all. As Pilch explains, God hardwired us for these experiences. Therefore God can use all of this. As the Second Vatican Council illustrates, the ever-present, never-absent God is not only the revealer but the content of what is revealed. Revelation is more than marching orders and sentences about God. Revelation is God. And God is messy, folks.
Throughout Scripture, messy things get caught up in the soundtrack. Slavery. Genocidal warfare. Kill all those people over there. Crush the skulls of those babies. Rape and pillage and murder Nineveh. The Book of Nahum is a classic example of the messiness of visionary soundtracks and inspiration.
Is it Real? Or Fake? Or Crazy?
When early 20th century pre-Vatican II Portuguese peasant children, who like all people are the capacity for God, get raised in an abusive, terrifying Church setting full of hellish images, that might just influence their ASC experience. That doesn’t mean that God wasn’t communicating to them, or they were “making it all up.”
Did God inspire the visionary? Yes. So God was “speaking” to such people? Yes. God was communicating God’s very SELF to such people. And revelation got received according to the mode of the receiver. In the beginning was the interpretation. And that’s a messy business!