Speaking in Tongues, Now and Then

 

The New York Times Sunday Review published a short article by T. M. Luhrmann, a professor of anthropology, on speaking in tongues titled Why We Speak in Tongues  (August 17, 2013). In the article, Luhrmann, who has published a book length study on glossolalia, “speaking in tongues,” When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God, examines from a scientific view what is going on when Christians speak in tongues.  Luhrmann has inspected the phenomenon in the USA, but she has just returned from Africa, where she relates that

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What struck me was how much people spoke in tongues: language-like sounds (usually, repeated phonemes from the speaker’s own language) thought by those who use them to be a language God knows but the speaker does not.

This type of speaking in tongues, glossolalia, is seen by modern Christians to be related to the practice of the earliest Christian churches as described by Paul in 1 Corinthians 12-14. Especially in 1 Cor 14, Paul describes the practice itself, in which he indicates that the language which people speak is not intelligible unless interpreted. For instance, in 1 Cor 14:2 he writes “those who speak in a tongue do not speak to other people but to God; for nobody understands them, since they are speaking mysteries in the Spirit.” In the same chapter, he says, “if in a tongue you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is being said? For you will be speaking into the air” (1 Cor 14:9) and “if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unproductive” (1 Cor 14:14).

Some Christians compare the practice as described by Paul in Corinth with the experience of the apostles at the first Pentecost in Jerusalem, as outlined in Acts 2, while others see the experience described in Acts 2 as related but separate to the Corinthian experience of the Spirit. Here is the passage,

1 When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2 And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3 Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. 5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6 And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7 Amazed and astonished, they asked, "Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9 Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11 Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God's deeds of power." 12 All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, "What does this mean?" 13 But others sneered and said, "They are filled with new wine."

Those who see it as a different experience call it xenolalia, “speaking in a foreign language,” and point to the fact that Acts says “each one heard them speaking in the native language of each” (Acts 2:6), so this could not be the unintelligible speech of the Corinthians. Those who say it is the same practice focus on the fact that the apostles “were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability” (Acts 2:4) and it is the hearers who heard the spiritual language “in the native language of each” (Act 2:6), the very act of interpretation that Paul might be referring to in his letter to Corinth. This will not be settled in a blog post, but I wanted to draw attention to this difference in interpretation.

The revival of speaking in tongues amongst Christians is a 20th century phenomenon itself and has generally focused, as Luhrmann outlines, on speaking “a language God knows but the speaker does not.” Luhrmann notes the happiness that those who speak in tongues exhibit, but questions whether it is simply a gift of the Holy Spirit as “the act involves learning and skill” and it is also quite easy to fake. Nevertheless, she is not on a quest to attribute speaking in tongues to fakery, but acknowledges that “what dawned on me in Accra {Ghana} is that speaking in tongues might actually be a more effective way to pray than speaking in ordinary language — if by prayer one means the mental technique of detaching from the everyday world, and from everyday thought, to experience God.” She mentions briefly rote prayer (i.e., the Lord’s Prayer, Hail Mary, etc.) and then distinguishes between “two kinds of Christian prayer practice,” the one being “apophatic” prayer, “which looks a lot like meditation and mindfulness,”  and “kataphatic” prayer, in which “one fills one’s imagination with thoughts from Scripture. The classic example is the 16th-century spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola.”

She sees speaking in tongues as a form of “apophatic” prayer, an attempt to still the restlessness of the mind and focus on “something meaningless (but understood by the speaker to be divine).” Luhrmann also mentions that

Scientific data suggest that tongue speakers enter a different mental state. The neuroscientist Andrew B. Newberg and his colleagues took M.R.I. scans of tongue speakers singing worship songs, and then speaking in tongues. When they did the latter, they experienced less blood flow to the frontal cerebral cortex. That is, their brain behaved as if they were less in a normal decision-making state — consistent with the claim that praying in tongues is not under conscious control.

Though Luhrmann might not be willing to attribute speaking in tongues to the Holy Spirit, she definitely believes, and has evidence to show, that something is indeed going on neurologically and spiritually in those who speak in tongues.

Interestingly, though, other Christians have their own questions about speaking in tongues. Many evangelical Christians other than Pentecostals question the reality or value of the phenomenon and whether it can be compared to the practice as described by Paul or Acts 2.[1] Many Christians see it as a practice which properly came to an end in the ancient world, though the practice is growing all over the world today, as shown in Luhrmann’s article.

Catholics certainly understand the gifts of the Spirit in a broader sense than most Pentecostals and would not see glossolalia as an essential component for one’s salvation or a necessary or essential sign of one’s right relationship with God, but there have been Catholic charismatic revivals as well and the practice is found among many Catholics. In my own Archdiocese (of St. Paul –Minneapolis), one can link to the Catholic Charismatic Renewal Office on the official website and elsewhere.

The Church, of course, sees the gifts of the Holy Spirit as active throughout the Church, which would include speaking in tongues, but glossolalia, like any ecstatic or emotional manifestation of spirituality, often raises the issue of control – or lack of control? - and the source of the behavior. To my knowledge the Church has not pronounced officially on the current practice of speaking in tongues, but naturally it understands the action of the Holy Spirit as authentic and true (see CCC696) and still dynamic (see CCC2003: “Whatever their character - sometimes it is extraordinary, such as the gift of miracles or of tongues - charisms are oriented toward sanctifying grace and are intended for the common good of the Church. They are at the service of charity which builds up the Church”).

As such, Luhrmann’s understanding of speaking in tongues as a source of happiness would not be rejected nor, it seems to me, would her description of the neurological processes which underlie this activity be cast aside. I think, though, Christians would insist on understanding speaking in tongues, when authentic, as having a source in the divine, the work of the Holy Spirit, which may or may not always be comprehensible scientifically or neurologically.

It is an intriguing issue for the Church today, as the energy and power of speaking in tongues has attracted many people to Pentecostal churches, including many (former) Catholics in South America and Africa.   What is the attraction? The actual speaking in tongues? The happiness Luhrmann reports? The personal experience of the divine? How can one judge the actual experience (since fakery does exist)? Apart from someone teaching against the Church, how can one measure the source of the glossolalia? Have we spent enough time thinking about this New Testament practice? Or is it, as some evangelicals have argued, a practice whose time ended centuries ago with the apostles?

Luhrmann ends her article with an appeal:

Speaking in tongues still carries a stigmatizing whiff. In his book “Thinking in Tongues,” the philosopher James K. A. Smith describes the “strange brew of academic alarm and snobbery” that flickered across a colleague’s face when he admitted to being a Pentecostal (and, therefore, praying in tongues). It seems time to move on from such prejudice.

Paul does not dispute the reality of tongues, or that these tongues are from God, neither does Luke in reporting the accounts of the first Pentecost in Acts of the Apostles. Given the New Testament heritage, is there more we should be doing than simply moving on “from such prejudice”? Or is discretion the better part of not being considered drunks at 9 am (“they are filled with new wine”) as Peter and the apostles were at the first Pentecost or, perhaps worse, being considered spiritually out of control or frauds?

John W. Martens

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This entry is cross-posted at Bible Junkies

 



[1] See for instance the article by Nathan Busenitz, The Gift Of Tongues: Comparing The Church Fathers With Contemporary PentecostalismTMSJ 17/1 (Spring 2006) 61-78 who, as the title indicates, compares current practice with the Church fathers and finds current practice wanting. This he does not from a Catholic or Orthodox stance, but from an evangelical stance. The PDF article is available for free online by googling the title.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Robert Klahn
4 years 3 months ago
Speaking in tongues may be a form of mental distortion, perhaps self induced, perhaps originating in some medical condition. I may also be a means of selling oneself as a religious figure, or selling one's religiosity, or just part of a performance. I see no reason to believe there is any valid religious basis to such. Speaking in tongues that are the language of your listeners is the true speaking in tongues. The sign of the Pentecost is the real measure of the validity of speaking in tongues. If your listeners cannot understand you what you say may mean something in your temporarily distorted world, but it has no real connection to anything I understand of Christianity.

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