About a month ago, as I was preparing to start a centering prayer, I felt compelled to “speak in tongues” – a practice I have not done in years. It was an incredibly powerful and sacred moment. Honestly, this shocked me. I have deconstructed much of my Pentecostal heritage, and I thought the practice would feel like awkward gobbledygook. It didn’t.
To be clear, I don’t see tongues as receiving a new language (angelic or otherwise), nor do I think that a supernatural being mediates speaking in tongues. When I speak in tongues, I am quite in control, stringing sounds together that have no direct meaning.
So, if I am simply making strange sounds and don’t think of it a supernatural occurrence, then what makes speaking in tongues so special? I am not an expert on tongues, but here are some thoughts:
To begin with, let me offer some introductory remarks. Christians who practice tongues typically look to passages such as Acts 2, 1 Corinthians 14, and Romans 8:26, among others. From my experience, tongues take at least three forms that correspond to these passages. First, there is “zenolalia” which is the ability to speak a foreign language that the speaker was never taught. This is typically considered a gift for evangelism and Pentecostals point to the evangelizing in Acts 2 as a president for this. The other two types are called “glossolalia” and are thought of as spiritual tongues, angelic tongues, or sometimes referred to as one’s “personal prayer language.” Glossolalic tongues might be spoken (shouted even) during a church service as a encouragement to those gathered, and it is expected that it will be followed up by another believer who will offer its interpretation and thus its edification for the Church. Pentecostals point 1 Corinthians 14 for this. Lastly, tongues (glossolalia) are spoken as a personal prayer language that builds up the individual. This is found throughout Paul’s epistles, but Romans 8:26 is my favorite passage on this.
Regarding tongues as evangelism, I don’t have a supernatural world view, so I don’t believe God will drop Spanish, French, or Greek (although that would have made my year of Greek a whole lot easier) into my mind. I don’t totally reject tongues in a corporate gathering, such as a church meeting, but that is a topic for another time. My interest here is tongues as a form of prayer and meditation. In other words, I want to explore tongues as a sacred spiritual practice.
So from my mystical naturalist perspective, how do I reconstruct an understanding of tongues that retains its mystery, but removes the supernatural barrier?
I see tongues as a cross between typical prayer (verbal speaking following a stream of consciousness) and silent prayer/meditation (focused attention on a word/ breath). On the one hand, while verbally praying, your mind runs from topic to topic. However, you shape these thoughts into words typically taking the form of a petition, worship, or thanksgiving.
Silent prayer, on the other hand, focuses your mind on a single thought, word, or phrase, allowing you to excavate your being. Naturally, your mind might jump to other thoughts, so you affirm those feeling, let them fade, and refocus your attention on your word/breath.
Like verbal prayer, with tongues, your mind is racing through a stream of consciousness. However, unlike typical verbal prayer, the flow of thoughts isn’t forced to fit the meaning of words. It is my pure passion, expressing itself in sound. In the apostle Paul’s words, the Spirit is expressing itself “..in groans that words can not express (Romans 8:26).”
Similar to silent prayer, tongues focus the attention on uttering the sounds, which maintains the meditative state much like a mantra. However, unlike silent prayer, tongues are perpetually flowing and changing with the passions/thoughts that flood the mind. This allows the mind/spirit to race through petitions, praise, and passions without getting caught up on the semantics of language nor the grocery list.
When speaking tongues, one’s spirit – if I may, the Holy Spirit – is freely expressing itself bound only by one’s phonetic range rather than by linguistic dictionary. What I am trying to say (without downing other spiritual practices) is that speaking in tongues feels more freeing than silent prayer yet deeper than typical verbal prayer. I definitely want to maintain that silent prayer and meditation as well as verbal prayer are often better at addressing and fostering key elements of the spiritual life such as focus, encouragement, mourning, and comfort but tongues revel in the ecstatic dimensions of the spirit. Tongues is not a spiritual practice that helps us make sense of the world, rather it is an annunciation of the world’s senselessness and an appeal to the sense of the Spirit that the believer has felt erupt within their life.
The problem is that I learned and matured in the practice of tongues when I had a supernatural world view, which framed it as a supernatural event. Now, however, I don’t even know where to begin to teach it to others, but maybe I can start by saying this:
Have we considered how deeply language, culture, concepts, and labels have shaped who we are? It seems as though since we were children, we have gravitated to these linguistic signifiers claiming one or the other as our true identity, our proper self. However, the practice of tongues dismantles this concept.
By calling tongues a sacred language, the failure of traditional language to capture our true selves is exposed. Tongues is the gobbledygook of the self; it is the pure unintelligible jargon of one’s being. Traditional language, in its necessity for clarity and communication, fails to articulate and express the ambiguity of the subjective self. In the practice of tongues, however, the ambiguity of one’s own being has burst upon the scene like the creative Ruach (Sprit/breath) of God. It has fashioned for itself a new language, an incomprehensible Holy (set apart) language, a language of pure Otherness, the language of ourselves.
In an era where people look for themselves in astrology, tarot cards, personality tests, and enneagram numbers, maybe, just maybe, who you are can not be reduced down into external concepts. Maybe, just maybe, the real you is just under the surface of language, bubbling up within you in an angelic almost Ghost like voice. Maybe, just maybe, you can sense its haunting in moments of fear, passion, and loneliness.
Maybe what’s so spooky about tongues is that it is the voice of the Holy Ghost uttering back to us who we truly are, and who we are is terrifyingly uncertain. Perhaps we are scared of tongues because we are scared of ourselves.