Speaking in Tongues: What Would Jesus Do?

by Robert Perry

This in [is] not what the Bible means by "possessed of the Holy Spirit." It is interesting to note that even those who did understand that could nevertheless express their understanding inappropriately. The concept of "speaking in many tongues" was originally an injunction to communicate to everyone in his own language, or his own level. It hardly meant to speak in a way that nobody can understand. This strange error occurs when people do understand the need for Universal communication, but have contaminated it with possession fallacies. The fear engendered by this misperception leads to a conflicted state in which communication is attempted, but the fear is allayed by making the communication incomprehensible.

It could also be said that the fear induced selfishness, or regression, because incomprehensible communication is hardly a worthy offering from one Son of God to another. (Urtext)

This passage is found in the Urtext (the original typescript of A Course in Miracles), in the midst of a long discussion of the "possession fallacy," a discussion that comes directly after the miracle principles and was removed entirely from the published Course. In this discussion, Jesus lists four types of the possession fallacy:

1. The desire to possess the body of another, or have one's own body possessed by another.

2. The desire to possess physical things.

3. The fear of or desire for "spirit" possession.

4. The desire to possess knowledge (in the usual sense, not the Course sense).

Jesus' short but fascinating discussion of speaking in tongues, also called glossolalia, falls under the third type: "spirit" possession (he won't dignify this use of the word "spirit" by leaving it out of quote marks). First, Jesus says that this fallacy is actually worse than the first two; it is "a step somewhat further away from the 'Right Mind.'" The reason is that "it endows the Spirit with evil attributes," which is a more profound confusion than the second type, which merely endows physical "things with human attributes."

In case you are thinking that Jesus is simply talking about demon possession, think again. For he mentions "the religious zeal of its proponents," and soon after, discusses his prime example: speaking in tongues. We are probably all familiar with the phenomenon of speaking in tongues. It is especially associated with the Pentecostal and charismatic movements in Christianity. In the phenomenon, one goes into an ecstatic state and begins to babble nonsense syllables, which are often considered to be part of a private prayer language. Here is the definition of speaking in tongues that I found in my Encyclopedia Brittanica Profiles: World Religions:

utterances approximating words and speech, usually produced during states of intense religious excitement. According to religious interpretations of the phenomenon, the speaker is possessed by a supernatural spirit, is in conversation with divine beings, or is the channel of a divine proclamation.

Now let's look at what Jesus has to say about speaking in tongues.

This [being possessed by a "spirit"] in [is] not what the Bible means by "possessed of the Holy Spirit." It is interesting to note that even those who did understand that could nevertheless express their understanding inappropriately.

He begins by saying that "spirit" possession is not what the Bible was talking about. I assume he is referring to the experience at Pentecost, when after Jesus' death, the disciples "were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance" (Acts 2:4). He says that even those who understood that this was not a case of being literally possessed by the Holy Spirit could still express it that way, thus giving a false impression about what was really going on.

Actually, there is no use of the phrase "possessed of the Holy Spirit" anywhere in the Bible. So I think this remark is a kind of "scribal error." However, I do think that Jesus has the Pentecost event in mind when he says this, because the key verse which mentions "speak in other tongues" also has the phrase "filled with the Holy Spirit"—much like "possessed of the Holy Spirit." Also, Jesus refers to Pentecost later in the same paragraph. It seems to be his model for the right relationship with the Holy Spirit, in contrast to glossolalia.

Jesus clearly has an issue with the whole notion of the Holy Spirit possessing us. What is so bad about this idea? A clue occurs when he mentions (before our paragraph) "endowing the Spirit with human possessiveness." That, to me, says it all. Do I really want to see the Holy Spirit as displaying "human possessiveness"? When we say of someone "he's so possessive," is that ever a compliment? It conjures up notions of domination and subjugation, as well as selfishness. If I think I possess another person, I believe that she is all mine. This means two things. First, she is not her own person; I own her. And second, I will not share her with others. Is that how the Holy Spirit relates to us, like a selfish, jealous lover? Then Jesus says,

The concept of "speaking in many tongues" was originally an injunction to communicate to everyone in his own language, or his own level. It hardly meant to speak in a way that nobody can understand.

Now we see why Pentecost is Jesus' ideal example. In that story, each person heard what the disciples were uttering in his own language. Jesus sees that as a symbolic injunction that we should all let the Holy Spirit speak through us in the "language" of the person we are speaking to. Jesus is using the literal meaning of "language" from the Pentecost event to refer to language in a broader, figurative sense—we should speak to another at "his own level." The problem with speaking in tongues is that "nobody can understand" what you are saying (though, to be fair, Pentecostalists often say for just this reason that there should be an interpreter there who can interpret the message for others). Next comes his explanation for how this occurs:

This strange error occurs when people do understand the need for Universal communication, but have contaminated it with possession fallacies. The fear engendered by this misperception leads to a conflicted state in which communication is attempted, but the fear is allayed by making the communication incomprehensible.

This is admittedly hard to follow. So let's go through it one step at a time. First, if I am speaking in tongues, it is because I dimly sense "the need for Universal communication." What "Universal communication" seems to mean is the Spirit speaking through me to all my brothers. Because I am acting as a conduit, everyone is joined in communication with God.

Yet even though I sense the need for this, I "have contaminated it with possession fallacies." Maybe I see being used by the Holy Spirit as losing control of myself. I've now become possessed by Him. He runs the show. I'm just His lackey. Or maybe (since Jesus uses "fallacies" in the plural) I inject one of the other fallacies. Maybe I think that by channeling Him to everyone, all the people that I serve through this ministry will own a piece of me; they will all possess me (first fallacy). Or maybe I think that the Holy Spirit will so take over my life that He will have me channeling Him at all times, even at the most inappropriate times, so that I lose everything—money, house, possessions (second fallacy).

However you slice it, if I mix possession fallacies into the idea of being a conduit for universal communication, I will be very afraid of the situation. Yet this doesn't erase my sense that there really is a need for universal communication. So I do the natural thing when split between two poles: I try to combine them both. I allow the Holy Spirit to speak through me (thus honoring the need for universal communication), but then make sure the communication is incomprehensible (thus honoring my fear of it). The end product is that He speaks through me incoherently. I speak in tongues. Jesus makes one final comment about this phenomenon:

It could also be said that the fear induced selfishness, or regression, because incomprehensible communication is hardly a worthy offering from one Son of God to another.

I find this last comment very telling. By babbling incomprehensibly, I'm not giving you a worthy offering. I'm not really giving you anything at all. I'm basically keeping my relationship with the Holy Spirit to myself. I'm closing the drapes on the bedroom I share with Him. He may be possessing me, but in a sense I am also possessing Him—I am refusing to share Him with you. Jesus describes this with a blunt label: "selfishness." He says that I have regressed to a childish state of mind: "The Holy Spirit is my special toy and I won't share Him with you." What could have been universal communication that would acknowledge both me (as channel) and you (as receiver) as worthy Sons of God, has made me into the spiritual star and you into the jealous onlooker. If you have ever been around people speaking in tongues, you probably know exactly what I mean.

I think this last comment of Jesus' captures the heart of his concerns about speaking in tongues. It conjures up a picture of what can best be described as a special relationship with God. His Spirit possesses me in the same way that a jealous human would possess me. I am no longer my own person; I am under His domination. Yet I actually enjoy this state of affairs. After all, if being the "arm candy" of a celebrity is regarded as a special honor, then why not being the "tongue candy" of the Holy Spirit? In keeping with this notion of special relationship, I want a private union with Him. And so just as the Holy Spirit possesses me, so I possess Him, in the sense of not sharing Him with others.

According to Jesus, all of this comes out of fear of the expansiveness of real universal communication. Earlier in this possession material, Jesus said that the real fear here is "fear of the irresistible attraction"—the attraction of God. We are afraid of losing our boundaries and disappearing into God. We think that would mean losing control of ourselves and even losing our hold on existence. And so we turn the relationship with God into a special relationship, in which He possesses us like a jealous lover and we refuse to share Him with others.

This, of course, is not how God really is, nor how the Holy Spirit really is. Speaking in tongues gives us a false picture of our relationship with God. Back in my Lutheran days, I remember hearing about churches that firmly believed that unless you spoke in tongues, you could not be saved; i.e., you were going to hell. Here, then, is a God who says, "Unless you engage in this private, exclusive union with Me, I have no use for you. I will permanently discard you." Can you see now why Jesus is so against endowing the Spirit with human possessiveness?

But wait. Aren't we talking about a spiritual experience here? Isn't speaking in tongues an experience that just comes over people? Isn't it a product of the Holy Spirit, not of them? Here is one of the most interesting implications of Jesus' discussion of glossolalia. He sees it not as something that just comes over us, but as the result of a decision on our part to limit the Holy Spirit truly coming over us. It is an attempt to compromise between God and the ego. This has major implications for how we view all spiritual experiences. How many of them are filtered through our beliefs and resistances? How many of them are really compromises between God and the ego?

You'd think that of all people Jesus would be all for speaking in tongues. Yet his criticism here is surprisingly sharp. What, however, does he see as an alternative? Pentecost is clearly the first answer. However, throughout this entire discussion, I couldn't also help but think of Helen's channeling. In every way, it fits the ideal that is implied in Jesus' criticism of glossolalia. This is not a case of Helen being possessed in any way. She wasn't siezed by a foreign spirit, as we see in this Old Testament passage: "Then the spirit of the Lord will possess you, and you will be in a prophetic frenzy along with them and be turned into a different person" (1Sa 10:6). Helen's channeling of the Holy Spirit was the opposite of this. Rather than taking her over, she simply heard a voice in her head, a voice that would not intrude upon her duties, but would wait until she had spare time, and would even pause for interruptions like phone calls. Here is the voice of a friend, a polite, non-intrusive friend. This is virtually the opposie of a possessing spirit that siezes you and sends you into a prophetic frenzy, turning you into a different person.

Further, what this voice told her was not just for her. It was for everyone. In some of the early dictation, Jesus talked about how important it was that Helen's notes not be strictly personal but instead have a "generalizable quality"—meaning their message could be generalized to others. To this end, Jesus took pains to write in straightforward English. He often mentions how clear and plain the Course is (see especially my piece "The Course's Language Is Clear, Simple, Direct"). Here are a couple of examples:

I have made every effort to use words which are almost impossible to distort, but man is very inventive when it comes to twisting symbols around. (T-3.I. 3:11); Urtext version)

You have begun to realize that this is a very practical course, because it means exactly what it says. (T-8.IX.8:1; Urtext version)

We often complain about how impenetrable the Course is, but if you look closely at its language, it mostly makes straightforward statements, in short sentences, and in clear English. Open the book and you'll see what I mean. Jesus is doing his best to bring these very lofty truths down to our level and make them comprehensible to us. He places a high value on being transparent rather than obscure and mysterious, as we see here:

Like the text for which this workbook was written, the ideas used for the exercises are very simple, very clear and totally unambiguous. (W-pI.39.1:2)

What Helen heard was not a private prayer language meant just for her, which to everyone else sounded incomprehensible. She heard messages that were first for her, but also for everyone, in plain English, the world's current lingua franca, and in wording that was designed to be "very simple, very clear and totally unambiguous."

History has passed down many images to us of a God who possesses us, siezes us, and sends us into a frenzy. In this frenzy, we babble incoherently, speaking in a mystical tongue that no one else understands. Yet maybe those are not images of the real God. Maybe those images are generated by our fear of real, unbounded communication with Him. Maybe they are simply how God's light comes through the cracks after we close the shutters. Maybe the real God is like the voice that Helen heard, the gentle voice of a caring friend, who refuses to intrude, but quietly speaks to us when we have a spare moment. What He says seems designed just for us, but is really intended for everyone. And when they read His message, they too feel like it was meant just for them. And now, because we let Him through, all of us feel personally spoken to by God; all of us are joined in universal communication with God.

When it comes to the issue of speaking in tongues, this is what Jesus would do.

One Comment

  1. Pamela Reuben
    Posted July 14, 2015 at 6:12 am | Permalink

    I thought you might be interested in the fact that St. Paul made much the same point that is being made here when he distinguished between speaking in tongues to other people vs. having a personal prayer language using ‘tongues.’

    1 Corinthians 14: 1-5

    Prayer Language

    1-3 Go after a life of love as if your life depended on it—because it does. Give yourselves to the gifts God gives you. Most of all, try to proclaim his truth. If you praise him in the private language of tongues, God understands you but no one else does, for you are sharing intimacies just between you and him. But when you proclaim his truth in everyday speech, you’re letting others in on the truth so that they can grow and be strong and experience his presence with you.

    4-5 The one who prays using a private “prayer language” certainly gets a lot out of it, but proclaiming God’s truth to the church in its common language brings the whole church into growth and strength. I want all of you to develop intimacies with God in prayer, but please don’t stop with that. Go on and proclaim his clear truth to others. It’s more important that everyone have access to the knowledge and love of God in language everyone understands than that you go off and cultivate God’s presence in a mysterious prayer language—unless, of course, there is someone who can interpret what you are saying for the benefit of all.

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