What is speaking in tongues? It just sounds like babble to me, its not even a language that can be understood. I have to admit, when I read in the Book of Acts, that “Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages,” (Acts 2:3-4) it kind of freaks me out.
Glossolalia, as its often called, is big among Pentecostals who claim its a gift of the Spirit; evidence that they’re saved. [see explanation and example] That may work for them, but honestly, its just a bit much for me to take. Not to mention, that it could be used to exclude those who for whatever reason haven’t been “baptized in the spirit”. I’ve never spoken in tongues; I just don’t think I can go there. Does that mean I’m not really a Christian?
That said, I have to admit there’s one thing about these stories in Acts that does interest me. There appears to be a connection (in the text) between speaking in tongues and the Christians’ ability to love each other.
In Acts Chapter 2 [read text] wealthy and sophisticated diaspora Jews, who had come from all parts of the Roman Empire to settle in Jerusalem, end up rubbing elbows with uneducated rural fishermen, those they would normally have dismissed as backwards and beneath them. (Martin Hengel) They are even willing to accept Peter’s authority as a teacher, shocking given that the diaspora Jews were devoted to the synagogues, where they studied with highly trained rabbis and maintained a strict adherence to the Sabbath codes. Incredibly, however, they are, seemingly out of the blue, willing to set aside their prejudice and step outside the boundaries. The result of all this is a new found fellowship: “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” (Acts 2:44-45)
Once it was unleashed this radical hospitality could hardly be contained within the boundaries of the ancient Hebrew religion; so much so, that in subsequent chapters of Acts, the horizons are expanded to include the Gentiles (non-Jews): an even more shocking event.
In Acts 10:44-48 [read text] “while Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God.” After this the Gentiles were welcomed into the community. Was it simply because they had received the gift of the Holy Spirit? Was speaking in tongues evidence that they too had been saved? That explanation is just not good enough.
When the first Christian communities gathered people from all walks of life, economic, religious: wealthy Romans, slaves, prostitutes, religious leaders, fishermen, they shared one thing in common: a moment of openness to each other, in which their worldly status, however high or however low, was overwhelmed by something else, something that can only be described as a gift.
Whatever it was, it breached the walls, the social barriers that keep people divided, which make it difficult for people on either side of those barriers to understand each other.
We know that Jesus welcomed all sorts people into fellowship with him, including prostitutes and tax collectors. The same sort of hospitality is inextricably linked to this new event, which is described in Acts as the gift of the Holy Spirit and speaking in tongues. And as much as I’d like to pinpoint the cause, its like the chicken and the egg, its impossible to say which came first, but one thing is for certain, in these stories speaking in tongues is more related to openness to others, and not simply my own personal salvation.
What I find really interesting is that for about 2,000 years, speaking in tongues completely disappeared. Over time, as the church became more structured, speaking in tongues faded into the past, so that by the 4th century it was considered an ancient bygone. Augustine and other church leaders of the time explain it away as inevitable…. but I’m suspicious. To this day Christians commemorate Pentecost as the founding of the church, as if that moment has been perfectly reproduced, without interruption from then until now, when in fact its the opposite. The church slowly but surely rebuilt the walls that had been torn down by the radical hospitality described in Acts. The openness that had brought people together was lost, and to this day the churches have yet to recover it.
And whether they do or not may already be a moot point, since we now live in the post-Christian era. Even so, while the traditional structures of church and even family are crumbling all around us, we may, in fact, have found better walls to replace them. For centuries, intimacy within the family, where people lived in the closest possible proximity, was carefully controlled by the rules of patriarchy. Now in postmodern societies, like our own, who I get close to is all too often a matter of appearances, determined by what a person wears, by the music they listen to, or by what they buy. Couples about to marry relate to each other through the consumption of consumer goods. Composing the gift registry is more important than composing the marriage vows. People are increasingly isolated within their neighborhoods, their homes, where high-tech security systems keep strangers out. In the process we are safely cordoned off from each other, never having to broach the issue of real intimacy, and what it would be like to relate to each other, our spouse, or our neighbor, if all of those external barriers suddenly disappeared.
But what if we try to imagine it? Would it be heaven or hell? Total chaos or the moment of new possibilities? The words, the titles, the outward appearances by which we categorize each other, through which we create meaning and differences, would lose some of their power. Language itself would be stretched to its limits. What would we do? Would we immediately set out to define new barriers or would we open ourselves and attempt to communicate with those with whom relationship had previously been unimaginable?
In any case, we may have no choice in the matter: the world is changing at a rate far greater than many of us have the ability to cope with. What the future holds will probably depend on our capacity for welcoming each other as new spaces open up between us. If we actually succeed and find a way to relate, free of divisive barriers, it would feel like a tremendous gift, a new reference for reality. This is what the people listening to Peter must have experienced that day, when all of a sudden people from across the Roman Empire could understand each other.
What do you think? Do I sound like a Jesus Freak?