I’ve enjoyed my transition from pastoring full-time to being a full-time PhD student and (part-time) chaplain for many reasons, although we do miss our wonderful community in Somerville, MA! Perhaps the central reason for my new-found glee concerns the conversations I’m now able to have.
For instance, when I was a pastor, people tended to act strangely around me when my “clergy card” was revealed. In Boston, I typically got three reactions:
- I’d be called “Father.”
- Relatedly, people would ask me for forgiveness for not attending church any more.
- They’d comment on how young I was.
Clearly, there’s a theme there.
Another reaction I got, whether it was just my perception or not, was a kind of distancing. There were these uncomfortable moments when the person I was talking to would find out that I was a pastor, and the question, “Do you attend church anywhere?” seemed to float in the air, although I never asked it. All of a sudden they viewed me as a salesperson, trying to rope them into an eternal commitment they weren’t interested in.
But now? Well, now I get to tell all sorts of people that I study religion, specifically Pentecostalism and Chinese Religions. And instead of immediately getting resistance and tension, I get intrigue and curiosity. I can’t overstate just how good it feels to have an open conversation about religion, where the other person comfortably talks about how they have negative feelings about Christianity and the whole idea of religion; those conversations were always sprinkled with unusual power dynamics before.
With this amazing freedom to speak openly, I get some interesting reactions to my study of Pentecostalism (Chinese religions are more palpable to our culture). I’ll ask if the person has ever heard of Pentecostalism, and I get two responses:
- “Those are the people that handle snakes, right?”
- “They do that weird language thing.”
So, technically yes, some Pentecostal communities have done the whole snake thing. Luckily, it’s an extremely small group of churches, though they’ve clearly engaged the imaginations of those outside Pentecostalism.
As for the second point, speaking in tongues is central to the tradition. In fact, most scholars list speaking in tongues as THE distinguishing feature of Pentecostalism. While I would argue that such a distinction is too narrow, for anyone interested in Pentecostalism, speaking in tongues is a very important topic to explore.
Speaking in Tongues
There are many biblical references for speaking in tongues: Acts 2, Acts 10:46, Acts 11:15, Acts 19:6, 1 Cor. 12:7-11, 1 Cor. 14, etc., etc. The sheer volume of verses dedicated to the topic expresses the importance of it, and this fact should give (some amount of) confidence to Pentecostals who feel uncomfortable discussing this part of their tradition and faith with others.
Before proceeding, however, let me just briefly explain why other Christian traditions do not share the same views on speaking in tongues. Although there are many verses proclaiming the importance of it, detractors primarily focus on one, single verse as a response:
“Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away” (1 Cor. 13:8)
There’s a not-so-subtle jab that comes along with the more passive “tongues will cease” rhetoric as the passage continues by saying that, sure, we all used to think like children when we were children; but now that we’re adults, we put away those childish things. Since my goal is not to combat that sentiment here, although it is quite reasonable to do simply staying within that one, single reference, I’ll only say that many Christians are nervous about speaking in tongues in modern society because it seems overly subjective and unreasonable. Evangelicals tend to be the most outspoken critics, citing their preference for reason over Pentecostals’ preference for emotion.
Philosophically, I do not think that argument is reasonable. I also don’t think speaking in tongues is a purely subjective act, detached from reality. In fact, I would argue that it is one of the key experiences in which a person is most in touch with reality.
So what is “speaking in tongues”? Theologically, metaphysically, socially, politically, how are we to understand it? For example, theologically, are we to view it as the Holy Spirit entering a person and speaking through her? Is the Spirit not already there? Is there anywhere the Spirit is not?
Socially and politically, what is taking place in a community when a message in tongues is given? Who is allowed to speak? How does speaking in tongues remove artificial barriers, such as the divide between men and women, old and young, poor and rich, uneducated and educated?
Many have argued that speaking in tongues is an act of resistance. Women, who are typically kept from leadership roles, speak forth to the entire church, reminding the congregation that the Spirit works through all people. Thus, the very act of speaking in tongues resists human structures that try to silence many voices. It’s a prophetic declaration that God is at work in the world, and that this work will not be stopped by patriarchal, segregated, divisive human systems.
I think speaking in tongues extends far beyond any categorization attempt. In fact, I think speaking in tongues speaks directly to each context where it’s present. My introductory goal here is to emphasize how important speaking in tongues is, while also trying to help those of us who might be uncomfortable with the topic.
At the same time, by discussing the topic in this manner, I do not mean to exalt speaking in tongues, as if it represents the pinnacle of Christian life. My purpose for discussing it at length has to do more with the confusion surrounding the topic than with its elevated position.
That being the case, I want to very briefly suggest another interpretation of tongues (yes, I see the pun), which I’ll develop further later.
If all of creation is a product of the Spirit of God, and if humans are created in God’s image, and if sin means separation from God, who (God) is necessarily moving through and in all reality, then speaking in tongues, defined as an openness and awareness of the always-present Spirit, is an act of (nearly) complete connection with foundational reality. This proposal is also congruent with philosophy, science, and other religious understand, although it does not have to be to remain reasonable for Pentecostals.
I hope these preliminary remarks reinforce or perhaps even helpfully reframe the topic of speaking in tongues. So let’s boldly proceed in confidence that the Spirit still moves in our midst!
Note from the Editorial Team: Engaged Pentecostalism is a community that values open dialogue and respectful engagement from different perspectives. The views expressed above are the author's own and do not reflect those of every part of the community.