The legitimacy of speaking in tongues and tracing how we learn

There is a pervasive modern idea that if you can dissect someone’s history and trace how they learned something or how they came to hold to a certain idea, then you have effectively “explained away” the legitimacy of their beliefs. “Oh, you only believe that because ______” is the standard form of this cynical line of reasoning that seeks to debunk.

You see this all the time. “I believe God speaks to me through the bible.” “No, you just think that because you spent several thousand hours in church as a child with people hammering that into your head. How could you think anything else?” This ignores any sort of personal experience the person may have had actually reading the bible. Perhaps they are careful thinkers that came to this conclusion through years of careful study and observation of the world around them. But those sorts of “legitimate” reasons are ignored if a particular history or list of mundane formative events can be produced.

Say you encounter a young scholar who is enthusiastic about post-modern deconstructionism. (I have some artist friends who seem to hang out in this head-space.) “But did you really take in everything and come to this conclusion?” I could ask them. “Or do you just think that because all your professors in college spent years assigning you to read Derrida and then analyze James Joyce? How much time did you spend studying the Aeneid or The Faerie Queen? Yeah. That’s what I thought.” See what I just did there? I’ve dismissed their thinking because I was able to explain HOW they got there. If it’s all about the journey, then reverse engineering the journey just proves you have the epistemology of a raft tossed on the waves.

In contemporary evangelicism, I think we see a funny guarding against this sort of criticism. This protective stance manifests itself as a preference for the spontaneous and a shunning of what can be traced. Prayer’s composed on the spot without forethought are thought to be more “authentic”, or “powerful” than prayers more slowly composed the previous day or especially than old written prayers. In the same way, a conversion to Christ that involves Jesus appearing to you in a dream or speaking to you in the depths of your suicidal despair are highly valued. Coming to faith through the slow steady teaching of your parents is sometimes even disregarded until “proven” by a more individual and personal spiritual experience at a fixed point in time. Baptism as an infant is especially suspicious. If it can be traced, then it might be a “dead” work of man. If it CAN’T be traced, then it must be the invisible work of the holy spirit. The assumption is that when God really moves, He covers his tracks.

Other Christian traditions have instead chosen to embrace this modern dissection technique and apply it enthusiastically to their own beliefs so they may hold up to this kind of scrutiny. WHY do we believe this? HOW did we come to believe this good thing? Let’s give lots of bullet points outlining it’s historical development. Jesus died on the cross as a substitution for our punishment. Why? Well because Paul, and Augustine, and Anselm, and Luther, and so forth. Why do we sing this song? Well because the text comes from Psalm 1 and then the music was written by J.S. Bach (better than anyone since), and finally because the bass line is easy to sing.

The trouble with the first reaction is that it dismisses our history, forgets our ancestors, and pretends that we are isolated individuals. I’ve listened to, quite possibly, hundreds of sermons in baptist churches where substitutionary atonement was taught, but only quotes from Paul were ever used. It’s as if Christian thinkers and leaders from 100 AD until the last decade have had their name redacted from the record. Their influence and legacy is very palpably there, but their names have been crossed out with a sharpie and the bibliography erased. Folks, that is NOT what sola scriptura is about. If we desire to be a community reconciled with our parents and grandparents then we need to acknowledge how their lives and work formed us today – going all the way back.

The trouble with the second reaction is it concedes to play the modernist’s post-enlightenment game. It provides no room for the ineffable mystery of God, and no affirmation of Him personally, mystically, meeting with us. “Oh, but we have made room for divine mystery in our tracing!” Oh, sure you have, but the problem is there will always be someone quite willing to dissect things further than you wish to break them down. There will always be someone touting the latest neuro-prefixed research to chalk up your ideas about God as mere brain waves. Someone will always be there to break humanity down to a subset of mammalia. Some in your own family may find they can’t sleep at night until they’ve broken an idea like ecclesiastical authority or predestination down to individual grains of silt. But the love of God is not well represented by sand castles.

If your car is sputtering, tearing the engine apart and cleaning the valves and pistons can be very healthy for it. A deeper understanding leads to real benefits. But taking the engine block and melting it down to see what percentage of the metal is iron, chromium, and carbon does NOT help your car run better. You’ve taken things apart too far. Never opening the hood is stupid, but you can insist on being stupid in the other direction as well.

Spelunking your memories and history to unearth your “reasons why” can be immensely valuable. But it will always have its limits. The Holy Spirit of God works now, in your heart this moment. Seeing how he blew in the past and how those before you swayed can never negate him pricking your conscience five minutes ago or whispering impossible hope to you last night. “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.” (Hebrews 3:7-8)


Where am I going with all of this? In a 2011 symposium headed up by James K.A. Smith, Randall Holm presented a paper titled Tongues as a Blush in the Presence of God exploring, as a scholar and third-generation Pentecostal, the nature of speaking in tongues. The piece is really interesting and draws on the work of Martin Buber and Abraham Heschel to expand the possibilities for what is going on when we pray to God in an unknown language. I am not going to look at most of the piece here, but rather just deal with one point mentioned in passing.

It was not long before my own intellectual curiosity and the realities of pastoral ministry combined to raise some questions for which my previous college education offered little help. I spoke in tongues; now what? Or in my darker moments, I spoke in tongues; so what? And in my quiet moments, I wondered what all good Pentecostals wonder at one time or another: whether tongues-speech could simply be learned behavior. Are the sounds emitted divinely imparted by God, or are they better classified as learned behavior? To be sure, if asked by the uninformed, I knew the answer to these questions, but I was a long way from being satisfied with my own response.

Is glossolalic speech a gift of divine origin…or is glossolalic speech a tonal human expression of “sighs to deep for words”? Or is the distinction artificial? … [If] the content of tongues-speech is ‘basically irrelevant’, that raises the inevitable question, could not the effect of tongues-speech be the same through mimicry or divine impartation?

And the key idea comes in the footnote:

Or to rhetorically frame the question in another way, ‘Are children two years of age aware that they are learning a language through mimicry?’ If they understood this process of language acquisition, would it make any difference in achieving their results? Would they think any less of their acquired speaking skills?

Critics of speaking in tongues in prayer to God will often undermine it using the tools I discussed earlier. It can be argued that it isn’t hard to learn to speak nonsense syllables by imitating those around you. When someone prayed with you to “receive the baptism of the holy spirit”, that’s what they did and you followed suit. It’s not unlike memorizing the Lord’s Prayer. That’s how you “learned” to speak in tongues, and you continue to adjust the practice within your church community where it is practiced openly. A older friend of mine once commented that in the 1980s someone would often work a “rondo shondo!” into their glossolalia at bible studies but apparently that phrase has fallen out of use as of late. Cessastionists roll their eyes at such commentary. If tongues is a spontaneous action of the Holy Spirit (as it is typically claimed), then any self-realization that the practice was learned by mimicry should completely rule out it’s legitimacy.

But look what has just happened here. The dissector is demanding that something be impossible to dissect for it to be valid. Suddenly he is the one calling for pure ineffable spontaneity. “If the Holy Spirit is going to have someone saying something crazy, then He had better not leave any tracks. If I can trace what’s going on then it must be fake!” Things are flipped around. They suddenly sound like godless scientists demanding miracles. Do we really want to be so quick to throw our lot in with them?

Think about Holm’s footnote example again. Would a child of two learning to speak think any less of the new words they learned each day if they were abstractly aware of how they were being taught them? For a long time, they literally do not know what they are saying. We think that if we pray Psalm 73, we know what we are saying and if we pray in tongues then we do NOT know what we are saying. But what if we don’t really know what we are saying in either case? God is our Father and we are his children. I think it’s clear from our history that we are often very LITTLE children. The apostles were with Jesus first-hand. The fire dropped in their laps. But their teaching to us is not diminished by the distance in time and space. We don’t need the message to drop in our laps fully-formed for it to “count”.

I love written prayers – both writing my own and praying through ones written by others. I also pray in tongues. Sometimes it’s the only thing I can do. In reflecting on my own formation, I think I can say with certainty that I was taught to pray in tongues a particular way. Sometimes I find myself following that pattern and sometimes I am surprised by the different directions it takes. I observed the same when I would attend charismatic prayer gatherings. Friends would often repeat similar phrases every time, but occasionally they would sound dramatically different and unique. Was that the Holy Spirit saying something there for a moment? I’d like to think so.

I think it’s time that all Christians embrace and acknowledge their history. Don’t just quote Paul and act like you came up with everything else yourself. At the same time, don’t quote the early fathers and act like nothing has happened since. Quote Augustine and Lewis, and maybe your own mother too. Don’t write a “statement of faith” for your new church plant using a blank sheet of paper. Start with the Nicene Creed at least and don’t be shy.

Along with this, I think that the sooner charismatics admit that prayer in tongues as it is typically practiced is a “learned behavior”, the better. Be honest. Sometimes your ecstatic utterances are just going through the motions. It’s OK! Sometimes the high liturgists are (as you suspect) just going through motions too. But you know what? That’s a good start. That’s a good start to every day. You’re moving. I believe God does something with people who are moving. Waiting for lighting to strike is for fools. Embrace the trace. You don’t have to be afraid when the dissectors come along. You can acknowledge how you were discipled and still embrace the mystery of God.