Tongues as Spiritual Discipline

Yes, I am a Pentecostal so I post about Pentecostal theological issues.  🙂

On the Pentecostal Theology Worldwide Facebook page…

(yes, this means this will be a bit of a long post and that you’ll have to put your thinking caps on.  🙂 )

…Mike Ivaska shared a blog post he put up about speaking/praying in tongues as spiritual exercise.  He writes in part:

…And that’s why I am starting to look at praying in tongues as a spiritual exercise.

Tongues as Spiritual Exercise

Once again, this is where our inner fundamentalists come out.  What is this weirdo hogwash I’m talking about?  What do I mean, “spiritual exercise”?  Well, I don’t mean transcendental meditation.  I don’t mean shutting off your brain and being “spiritual.”  What I mean is that when most of us experience what we would call our Spirit baptisms, what is happening is that we are learning to lean into Jesus and let him guide us into an experience and a practice that is all about trust.  For some of us it a resting in Christ, for some it is a stirring up of what God has put into us (we already, after all, have the Spirit within us if we are Christians).  For some, God seems to grab us.  For others, we let go to God.  But it is never the god of “feelings” or “spirituality” that we are dealing with.  It is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and Jesus himself, and the Spirit – that gloriously humble third person of the blessed Trinity.  Spirit baptism is a triune experience of deep relatedness with God.  So we do have to yield, but not so much because of God but because of us.  We get in our own way.

In response to Mike, my friend Monte Rice responds positively with the following in-depth comment (it was a couple days between the post and Monte’s reflection:

With great admiration, I read and enjoyed your blog posting; kudos! 

Yes, I believe we can appreciate tongues-speech as very much an authentic spiritual discipline, a genuine form of Christian “askesis.” Simon Chan uses the phrase, “ascetical tongues.” As a spiritual discipline, I describe tongues-speech as one important means of training our tongue, mental faculties and spirit for the work of partnering with God as co-creators in the renewing of creation. Through tongues-speech we are thus discovering a restored linguistical element to our true human vocation as co-creators with God. From this perspective, I describe tongues-speech as prophetic speech-acts, whereby we linguistically envision and speak forth qualitatively moral, social-ethical, aesthetic and spiritual realities that are so counter to the existing prevailing orders of our day, that it necessarily involves the imaginative creating— of “new tongues.” 

There really is a lot of intelligent, well articulated and sophisticated literature out there to substantiate how I just described tongues as a spiritual discipline. There are also a lot of very smart people who visit this forum and can confirm the literature. It is just a matter of whether we are willing to acknowledge its existence and seek out the relevant sources. 

Regarding my own expanded thoughts, I provide here links to unpublished documents I have developed. Just go to the “tongue-speech” folder at: https://www.box.com/s/irocxrzqkpivxk8v7was

There you will see a document I titled, “21st Century Renewal of the Pentecostal Imagination.” You will find that it concludes with a brief apologetic on tongues-speech, which expands the preceding description. You will also see there a second and very large document that functions more or less as a survey of themes and literature I am aware of, also along the theme of my preceding description. You can also look through the following link for some simple seminar type notes I have on spiritual gifts, that touches on tongues in some more user-friendly, grass-roots style: https://www.box.com/shared/cgk9qzdbpx

Now I will share a few additional thoughts here, which I now find important and not earlier worked into the preceding documents.

First to note is an observation from Amos Yong, which he develops from Robert Cummings Neville work, “The Truth of Broken Symbols” (University of New York Press, 1996). Neville thus refers to how religious symbols are normally “true but broken;” hence the title of his work, “The Truth of Broken Symbols.” Yong suggest that tongues-speech is an authentic spiritual discipline (I would add, especially in the manner that I just described it) is “true” to the point that the practice issues in “transformation” towards the values we associate with tongues-speech [See Yong’s “’Tongue of Fire’ in the Pentecostal Imagination: The Truth of Glossolalia in Light of R.C. Neville’s Theory of Religious Symbolism,” Journal of Pentecostal Theology 12 (1998): 39-65]. 

Yong thus applies Neville’s pragmatic theory to the symbol of “tongues of fire.” He thereby arrives at this hypothesis: “Glossolalia is devotionally true insofar as the Pentecostal soul is transformed to be more like the Spirit; it is practically true insofar as Pentecostal practices embody the Spirit; and it is theologically true insofar as the understanding of the mind is attuned to the Spirit.” From these premises, Yong then uses the symbolism of tongues speech to identify three “stages of personal or communal devotion:” “innocence, growth and adept.” These three stages essentially identify progress to fidelity with the religious significance we ascribe to the symbolism of “tongues of fire.” Yong thus states, “glossolalia is true provisionally and never absolutely, that is, so long as it remains a broken symbol.”

Yong’s reflection leads me to also consider how tongues and where tongue-speech fits within the ancient Classical distinction between cataphatic (mental / images) and apophatic (spiritual / silence). In this ancient scheme both disciplines of prayer are needful and should be practiced but ultimately— cataphatic prayer should leads us towards apophatic prayer, which is also called the “the way of unknowing, or the via negativa” (“way of negation”). The “way of unknowing” begins with the premise God is infinite, and human language is finite. Hence, we ultimately recognise the limitations of verbal speech in lifting the prayer of our heart, that is, our soul, to God. Inevitably, words end in silence. 

Keeping in mind Romans 8:26 (“The Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express”), tongues-speech should perhaps ultimately lead to silence before God. Tongues-speech thus lies necessarily somewhere on the border between cataphatic and apophatic prayer. [You can explore a similar theme in: Edmund Rybarczyk, “Reframing Tongues: Apophaticism and Postmodernism,” Pneuma 27, no. 1 (Spring 2005) 83-104]. The Scripture says that “He who speaks in tongues, edifies himself.” Tongues-speech indeed prepare us for even higher ascending levels of prayer into the presence of God. 

I also find it helpful to consider possible links between tongues-speech and meditative chanting. Comparative religious studies confirm the value of what Marcus Borg calls, “sacred sounds.” These sounds can be discerned into varied methods of repetitive chanting in other religious systems. Usually they involve certain protractions of vowel sounds, which Rudolf Otto (“The Idea of the Holy”) called, “the long-protracted vowel of wonder.” Borg moreover describes such practices as means for entering into states of spiritual receptivity, just as other practices do, such as fasting, reading Sacred Scripture, and even “acts of compassion” (such acts can indeed help to sensitise our heart to matters pointing to God’s mission in creation. This in fact points us towards Wesley’s idea of “means of grace,” which includes acts of charity). 

Meanwhile, there are also established patterns for entering into meditative states through the Eastern Orthodox practice of hesychastic prayer (repetitive chanting of the “Jesus Prayer: “Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner”). And in certain ways, I also find tongues-speech functionally analogous to the practice of hesychastic prayer.

But the “Jesus Prayer” is also cataphatic prayer, and ultimately it too leads to acknowledge the brokenness of human speech. So Dionysius the Areopagite said, “the more we take flight upward . . . we shall find ourselves not simply running short of words but actually speechless and unknowing . . . the more language climbs, the more language falters;” words end in silence. When Love perfects creation, tongues will cease— and we fall on our faces before God.

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Well, that should give you all some things to think about!  🙂
Blessings,
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