Everyone can speak in tongues! (kind of)

The church is full of those who won’t touch glossolalia with a ten foot pole. Sometimes it’s a twenty foot pole. The apostle Paul asks, “Do all speak in tongues?”, with the rhetorical answer being of course, “No”. And of course some do not. A position that states that NOBODY can is hokey. The traditional pentecostal position that everyone MUST I also find equally hokey. But listen to what Merton has to say about praying to God in words that cannot be uttered:

When what we say is meant for no one else but Him, it can hardly be said in language. What is not meant to be related is not even experienced on a level that can be clearly analyzed. We know that it must not be told, because it cannot. But before we come to that which is unspeakable and unthinkable, the spirit hovers on the frontiers of language, wondering whether or not to stay on its own side of the border, in order to have something to bring back to other men. This is the test of those who wish to cross the frontier. If they are not ready to leave their own ideas and their own words behind them, they cannot travel further.

-Thomas Merton, No Man is an Island, Ch.16 Sec.2

Pentecostals would call this a “personal prayer language”. Some scoff at the term, but I think it’s not too problematic. Other traditions acknowledge this very phenomenon, they just don’t classify it as tongues proper.

I believe that if you use the above definition (what Merton is talking about), any Christian with a prayer life and in some level of personal communion with the holy spirit actually can, and does speak in tongues. It might be inaudible. It’s not meant for anyone but the Lord anyway. Taking these “words”, raising the volume and making it a membership requirement (as it is in the Assemby of God, Foursquare, and other denominations) in my opinion misses the point and is unnecessarily exclusive.

On the other hand, I am not a cessastionist. I think speaking on tongues (of the out-loud corporate variety) is still a very possible spiritual gift that God may choose to give someone. If he/she has received, then they should speak. But if we’re talking about the unutterable words of communion between us and God himself, that is actually something else. Confusing these two has been, I believe, a major source of chaos and misunderstanding between Christian traditions in the past century.

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Pressing forward despite confusion

In Thomas Merton’s survey of Buddhism titled Mystics and Zen Masters, he takes on the difficult task of explaining Zen to the western mind. In fact, during the discourse he regularly expresses how problematic the task is. For starters, the primary “scripture” or text that Zen adherents study are the koans. They are seemingly nonsense sayings on which they regularly meditate. You may have heard some of these before:

Two hands clap and there is a sound. What is the sound of one hand?

A lot of them tell like stories though:

Ryokan, a Zen master, lived the simplest kind of life in a little hut at the foot of a mountain. One evening a thief visited the hut only to discover there was nothing to steal.

Ryokan returned and caught him. “You have come a long way to visit me,” he told the prowler, “and you should not return empty-handed. Please take my clothes as a gift.”

The thief was bewildered. He took the clothes and slunk away.

Ryoken sat naked, watching the moon. “Poor fellow,” he mused, “I wish I could have given him this beautiful moon.”

Anyway, what are you supposed to get out of meditating on these? Western scholars have been confounded for hundreds of years when they visit the east to try and figure this stuff out. Merton warns against several ways NOT to interpret Zen, but is hard-pressed to find a solution. He tries though and I found this passage he quoted from a respected Zen teacher to be helpful:

Jade is tested by fire, gold is tested by a touchstone, a sword is tested by a hair, water is tested by a stick. In our school on word or one phrase, one action or one state, one entrance or one departure, on “Hello!” or on “How are you!” is used to judge the depth of the student’s understanding, to observe whether he is facing forward or backward. If he is a fellow with blood in his veins he will immediately go off shaking his sleeves behind him and though you shout after him he will not come back.

– Hekigan Roku quoted in Miura and Sasaki

He goes onto explain:

The last lines of this quotation must not be understood to mean that mere rudeness is an adequate indication of Zen enlightenment. It refers to the student’s ability to “move on” and not stop at the question or the answer or the logical implications of words and acts. If he is alive, he will move. To study a koan is to learn not to be stopped by it, not to hesitate in the presence of a difficulty which is only illusory. To know where to go next without interminable figuring and discussions. To have no plans for “causing effects” and “getting results.”

I find that this is not at all unlike the walk of the mature Christian. There are the big questions: Why is there so much suffering in the world? How can I trust God if he allowed my child to die? And the more sticky doctrinal questions: Did God predestine me to salvation? How the heck is the body of Christ actually present in the bread and wine? And so on. But the disciple of Jesus, the one devoted to the Triune God, he has moved on from being troubled by all these. Not that he doesn’t have beliefs and opinions about these difficult questions. He may even be passionate about how they should be answered. But in his heart, they matter not.

Nothing life can throw at him, no logic or circumstance, can shake his faith. Throw him in prison and he will not despair. Threaten her with death and she won’t even consider renouncing any of it. These people aren’t crazy. They aren’t fanatics. But their love for the Lord, (or his hold on them, whichever you prefer) is not shaken by someone shouting after them. They will shake it off and keep walking.

Approaches Christian apologetics

My wife was having a discussion with some friends online on how to go about proving the existence of God. One person was playing the devil’s advocate atheist to challenge the others. Many of the first replies were predominately accounts of people’s own life experiences and how they came to faith. The challenger complained that these were all completely subjective and therefore irrelevant. My contribution goes something like this:

I think faith has objective and subjective components. So, because others can’t actually relate to our own experiences (the holy spirit moving in us, Jesus appearing to us in a vision, “burning in the bosom” (the classic Mormon phrase), etc.), then apologetics is limited in it’s ability to turn people’s heart toward the Lord. Maybe you can describe these things in a way that is helpful, or can relate your personal experience to them in a way that is moving, but it’s 1/2 of the mystery of faith that can’t really transfer to the next person so well.

However, I think much of our faith, (the other 1/2 if you will, though it’s not a math problem), actually can be treated objectively. These things appeal to our rationality, logical intellect, and our God-given ability to think things through. So on THAT front, there is much that can be done. Articulating these things can be difficult though, even for people who are strong Christians. People who have had very strong subjective experiences, often don’t feel so much need for their faith to be reinforced (so to speak), but systematic arguments for the existence of God. Or other theology for that matter.

Romans 1:20 is a really good place to start with and one of the key verses here:

For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities— his eternal power and divine nature— have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.

There are a few different ways to approach this to the secular unbeliever. C.S. Lewis goes from the angle of morality. Is there such a thing as right and wrong? Well, it had to come from somewhere. It’s built in. God built it in. And so on.

N.T. Wright, in his newer apologetic Simply Christian cuts a wider swath and in addition to morality (the longing for justice), brings up questions of relationships (there is something deep inside us that makes us not want to be alone), and also the desire for beauty (there is something that makes music, art, sunsets, etc. stir something deep within us.) These are “echoes of a voice” – the voice of our creator.

In both cases, the apologists don’t even bring up the idea of Christianity or Jesus until way later in the discussion. We are just trying to establish the possibility that a generic “god” is out there. And not just out there, but actually might care about the race of man on earth.

-1. I think it’s very hard intellectually to be a pure atheist. It’s an exercise in faith against what is hard-wired in our minds.

0. I think most people who “don’t believe in god” are actually agnostic. That’s a lot easier. There maybe is a god, but we can’t possibly figure it out, so it doesn’t matter.

1. The next step up is deism, which believe there probably was some higher power that made everything, but he’s distance and doesn’t actually interact in the affairs of man. He wound up the universe, and maybe it has some kind of purpose, but we can’t do much more than make up stories about what that might be. So again, it doesn’t matter.

2. After that, you start to wonder if this creator actually IS more involved in the actual lives of his creation. And there you have most religions. (Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hindu, tribal religions, etc.)

3, 4, 5…Only after all that do you take the step of saying God cared about his creation, and specially about a group of people called the Jews, and that he was directly involved in their history for hundreds of years, eventually incarnating himself in the person of Jesus do you get to Christianity. Whew!

There are a lot of steps of stuff to believe in between agnosticism and that. Good thing we have the Holy Spirit and that subjective experience to jump-start people. Arguing through all that stuff would be tiring!

The Never-Ending Road

I recently picked up Loreena McKennitt’s latest album “An Ancient Muse“. Unfortunately, it’s definitely not as strong as her past works. Reviewers are calling it “The Mask and Mirror Part II” and I must agree in many regards. Nonetheless, there are some moments of sublimity and I’ve grown to like it quite a bit. The musicianship is wonderful and the exotic stringed instruments (oud, hurdy gurdy, sitar, ???) are captured with a clarity that is rarely heard when they show up on other projects. Throughout the album she continues to explore spirituality, nodding at Christian, Muslim, and Jewish ideas, sometimes all at the same time while not being willing to embrace any of them.

One of the pieces is called “Never-Ending road”. Upon writing down the text, I realize it loses much of it’s energy and even meaning. LM’s lyrics and poetry is often VERY much tied to it’s music. It doesn’t usually stand on it’s own as well. You might want to listen to part of it.

Nevertheless, here it is:

The road now leads onward
As far as can be
Winding lanes
And hedgerows in threes
By purple mountains
Round every bend
All roads lead to you
There is no journey’s end

Here is my heart, I give it to you
Take me with you across this land
These are my dreams, so simple and few
Dreams we hold in the palm of our hands

Deep in the winter
Amidst falling snow
High in the air
Where the bells they all toll
And now all around me
I feel you still here
Such is the journey
No mystery to fear

Here is my heart, I give it to you
Take me with you across this land
These are my dreams, so simple so few
Dreams we hold in the palm of our hands

The road now leads onward
I know not where
I feel in my heart
That you will be there
Whenever a storm comes
Whatever our fears
The journey goes on
As your love ever nears

Here is my heart, I give it to you
Take me with you across this land
These are my dreams, so simple and few
Dreams we hold in the palm of our hands

And from her notes:

The last song “Never-ending Road” was inspired by the tradition found within certainly the Christian, Judaic and Muslim traditions of mystics writing metaphoric poetry that is really reaching towards capturing the essence of the relationship between humanity and God. And I’ve loved this process of creating a document that speaks in this way. And in so far as this life is a journey with all its joys and sorrows and hardships, that it’s a never-ending journey, it’s a never-ending road. And that as conscious as I am of the far greater talent and vision of those who have inspired me, this song is really a modest gesture to that tradition.

Though the tone of the music is very different, in my mind this song strongly resembles “Obsession” from an early Delerious? album:

What can I do with my obsession?
With the things I cannot see
Is there madness in my being?
Is it wind that blows the trees?
Sometimes you’re further than the moon
Sometimes you’re closer than my skin
And you surround me like a winter fog
You’ve come and burned me with a kiss And my heart burns for you
And my heart burns

And I’m so filthy with my sin
I carry pride like a disease
You know I’m stubborn God and I’m longing
to be close
You burn me deeper than I know
I feel lonely without hope
I feel desperate without vision
You wrap around me like a winter coat
You come and free me like a bird

And my heart burns for you
And my heart burns for you

The later is painfully aware of our fallenness; our inability to cast the Lord aside and still live. LM may not have a very “right” theology, yet I believe she has perceived an important attribute of the character of God: Love. This isn’t the distant agnostic God watching the world spin far below. This isn’t the impersonal force in the trees and dirt. This isn’t the authoritarian task-master in the sky. This is a God of relationship with actual real humans like us. Mysterious and invisible yes, but also very near and not unknowable. You have to trust him. We resist and yet want to trust even more.

You can’t pin down God.

From Reaching for the Invisible God:

Throughout church history, Christian leaders have shown an impulse to pin everything down, to reduce behavior and doctrine to absolutes that could be answered on a true-false test. Significantly, I do not find this tendency in the Bible. Far from it, I find instead the mystery and uncertainty that characterize any relationship,l especially a relationship between a perfect God and fallible human beings. (p. 92)

He goes on to quote G.K. Chesterton:

“Christianity got over the difficulty of combining furious opposites, by keeping them both, and keeping them both furious.” Most heresies come from espousing one opposite at the expense of the other.

If there is anything I’ve learned since exploring the many branches of Christianity recently, it is the point expressed above. But what do you do with it? Well, let’s put some numbers on it:

1. Some fundamentalists don’t like this because it means that God can’t be adequately explained. They like to play up the importance of absolute truth (which IS important of course), but they aren’t sure what to do with mystery. So it either gets glossed over, or thrown out as being too (liberal, mystical, fill-in-the-blank).

2. Some Calvinists like to use this kind of material to draw attention to God’s sovereignty (which is great), but then do a u-turn by taking it a step further and trying to precisely define just how sovereign and mysterious and omnipotent and can’t-be-contained he is. They’ve got the Trinity measured down to a micrometer. Before you know it, you’re back to a staggering stack of true and false statements. Oops.

3. Some Charismatics will also appeal to the same idea, often saying, “You can’t put God in a box.” Well, of course you can’t. Yeah, that right! But wait. If I don’t speak in tongues then I can’t possibly have the holy spirit? If I’m sick and didn’t get healed, it MUST be because I didn’t have enough faith? And, prophecy is cool and all, but I’m not so sure about the stuff that one guy was saying yesterday. What, you mean I’m spiritually dead because I’m even questioning it? Huh? Looks like God’s still in the box.

I grew up in the company of #1, though the artist in me was never comfortable with it. For 5 years of college I hung with #3 (and still do sometimes). I have a drink with #2 sometimes and find it a secure and refreshing change. I’m just can’t buy the whole thing though.

Actually, I just can’t buy any of it.
So I guess I’ll take all of it. Woo hoo!