Alpha Plus

I suppose it must be a quarter of a century ago that I last wrote in The Catholic Herald about my antipathy towards the charismatic and pentecostal movement – with particular reference to my scepticism about “speaking in tongues”. I received my largest postbag ever and, almost to a correspondent, I stood condemned for my lack of faith.

On Sunday I watched on Channel 4, as some of you may have done, a programme which featured an Alpha course, as developed by the Holy Trinity, Brompton. I cannot criticise the movement for its lack of success: to get groups of agnostics discussing Christianity seriously – with the real possibility that some of them will seek conversion must be applauded. So my sense that it was over-simplistic, formulaic and highly dependent on the powerful psychology of small groups must be put down to sheer prejudice.

My greatest dislike was the attempt to summon the Holy Spirit and the encouragement to “speak in tongues”. I am of course familiar with what St Paul had to say on the subject but, even if I accept his somewhat cautious views, I can see no warrant for extending the use of public and meaningless utterances, attributed to the action of the Holy Spirit, as in any way part of the Christian tradition of prayer. Most certainly it has no place in an introductory course.

I have not attended an Alpha course, either in its root Protestant form or in any modified Catholic version, so perhaps I have no right to extend an opinion – although I am fairly well read in the topic.

Some of you may have had direct or indirect experience of Alpha, or other aspects of charismatic Christianity, so don’t hesitate to come back and show me why I am wrong. Or, if you are sympathetic to my views, I would be grateful to know that I am not alone.

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About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
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11 Responses to Alpha Plus

  1. paidi-seo says:

    Hi Quentin et al.,
    I am sceptical about speaking in tongues in the ‘charismatic’ setting. Having attended a few charismatic prayer meetings I felt the atmosphere to be opressive to the point that I felt people were expected to speak strangely or make strange sounds. Those of us who did not were at best looked upon as not quite ‘in’ or scared to be filled with the Spirit.

    My wife and her mother go regularly to such meetings and explain speaking in tongues as the Spirit enabling the soul to talk a language of love with God. When praying over others, as they do at all their meetings, they say it allows the prayers for that other person to be wholly about them and not the person praying (presumably because the tongue is not understood by the one praying.)

    Both ideas I find troubling; after all God knows what is in our heart before we do and He knows also what is best for the other person without them having to be ‘slain in the spirit’ or prayed for in a language they don’t understand.

    As an aside its strange that one supposedly incomprehensible language (Latin) is removed from the church and another put in its place whose origin one can only hope is blessed.

    A few years ago a renewal conference was held here (Southport) which troubled even my wife; the attendeees seemed not to show the other gifts of the Spirit (in particular love) for those with whose lifestyle they disagreed. It was a case of hating both the sin and the sinner. Charity for dissent was not much welcomed. By their fruits shall ye know them I suppose.

    Of course that is not to condemn all involved in the movement, members do live committed prayerful lives.

    I humbly submit that perhaps the gift of tongues was best exemplified at Pentecost when the disciples began speaking in the languages of strangers – so enabling Christ’s message to be spread around the world. That I believe is the true gift (with no disrepect meant at all to the power of the Holy Spirit to do as He wishes.)

    Sorry for the length of the posting, hope it makes some sense; it’s also nice to know I’m not alone in my thoughts as it feels I am out of step with the faithful in the local parishes!

  2. AMDG says:

    I have to admit to sharing Quentin’s skepticism about all this and if I am honest and respond from what I would call my Catholic instinct I find I am quite troubled by it. The idea of summoning up the Spirit to cause you to go into convulsions or gabble incomprehensibly seems to me to belong more to the repertoire of the Old Enemy rather than the Holy Spirit and has sinister parallels with paganism or the occult. The line from Macbeth springs to mind “Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”. The Devil is a master of parlour tricks and misdirection and whilst I do not doubt the sincerity of many of the people who engage in this activity, prayer has never been intended to be a trip-out, even the ecstasies of St.Teresa did not involve a drift into unconsciousness and her conscious mind and will were involved throughout. The idea that this is the language of the soul would I am afraid have St.Thomas Aquinas shaking his head disapprovingly as complete nonsense. Body and soul make up a single entity-the human person, and the soul needs the body (including language) to interpret sense data and communicate.

    I think the comment about Latin giving way to gobbledegook is an interesting one and I happen to think that much of the Catholic Charismatic movement of the 1980’s was a sincere search for the mystical and the spiritual which seemed to have disappeared from Catholic life. It is no coincidence either that as interest in reintroducing mystery, silence and awe into the liturgy is growing as well as increased Eucharistic adoration that the Catholic Charismatic movement seems to be on the wane.

  3. Iona says:

    Charismatic meetings (I have never been to one) simply don’t sound to me like “my cup of tea”. However, I know people who have attended regularly and are very enthusiastic about them, and who appear to show the Christian virtues, so I wouldn’t want to be critical of them or of the movement. We’re catholic as well as Catholic, our Father’s house has many mansions, so hopefully there’s room for them as well as me.

    However, like Paidi-seo I have been impressed by the fact that at Pentecost EVERYONE listening understood what the disciples were saying when they “spoke in tongues”, whereas now (and indeed on other occasions described in the NT), no-one does.

  4. James H. says:

    When I first heard praying in tongues, I had a similar eye-rolling reaction, which alternated with feelings of ‘help, these people are nuts!’ But, as CS Lewis remarked, looking ‘at’ is not the same as looking ‘along’ – if you want to understand something properly, you have to experience it, as well as witness it. I would recommend trying to receive the gift yourself, to everyone. Not all will automatically get it, and it can’t hurt.

    More importantly perhaps, we shouldn’t hang too tightly onto our sense of dignity or propriety – after all, none of us was conceived or born in a staid, dignified or pompous manner, were we? I submit that rebirth in the Spirit is a similarly passionate event. If you can’t be passionate about the touch of God on your soul, well then…

    There are occasions where tongues come out as an intelligible language, just as there are many times when it’s an undignified mess! I believe it should be part of private prayer at least, it tends to be too dionysian (for want of a better word) in a large public setting.

    Tongues was a part of the early church’s worship. I think it was referred to as ‘glossolalia’.

    Also, lumping charismatics together as wooly liberals is a particular nonsense I can’t stand: charismatics disagree about a great many things (even among themselves), but overall you won’t find them dissenting from church teachings on the divinity of Christ, the Real Presence, the authority of the Pope, the primacy of Christianity over other creeds, the value of fasting, the existence of evil and the Devil or (especially) the inspiration of scripture. Some of them might have less-than-orthodox views on extramarital sex, but less so than the rest of the church; and every charismatic event always features Eucharistic adoration.

    I would never have grown to love Latin and liturgical chant, if I hadn’t first been ‘woken up’ by the Charismatic Renewal in my troubled early 20’s. After my first Life in the Spirit Seminar, it was as if the Mass was suddenly in 3-D.

    Don’t knock it!

  5. Fariam says:

    I have seen both sides of the charismatic movement and speaking in tongues, in the Catholic and Protestant tradition. While I am not a natural charasmatic, I feel perfectly at home at a charismatic or pentecostal meeting on my own terms, ie. not under any form of manipulation or force (subtle or otherwise)! I have been in situations which I found (highly) questionable and in situations where I felt I was hearing angels singing. I do think discernemnt is necessary, and that any gifts of the Spirit should not be used for personal gain or coercion.

    Incidentially, I received the gift of tongues without looking for it or wanting it. Several years ago, I was at a prayer meeting when I unexpectedly foudn myself praying softly in other “words” – short, simple words. The strange thing is that even if I don´t pray in tongues for months, maybe a year or more, I never forget the words. I find it remarkable as they are unlike any language I know. They remind me of a mix of Greek and Russian or something similiar. I think of these words as the language of love. And I generally only pray like this when alone or perhaps praying specifically with and for someone in special need. And I might add that softly praying like this brings me the same peace as praying the Rosary which says a lot, I think.

  6. chauffer says:

    I heard a vagrant speaking in tongues once during communion at St. David’s Cardiff, Cathedral and although the term ‘gobledegook’ would be rather apt; he didn’t seem to bother anyone and there was that sense that he may have been closer to God than the rest of us anyway.

    I got that (partial) impression because there was nothing ‘spooky’ about his tone although I doubt if the same could be said of spiritualism.

  7. RMBlaber says:

    I have had experience of the charismatic movement in its Protestant setting, rather than its Catholic form. I have ‘spoken’ and prayed in tongues, and been ‘slain in the Spirit’.
    The ability to speak foreign languages without having learned them (xenoglossia, rather than glossolalia) is one that, in the Christian context, seems to have been confined to the Apostles themselves at Pentecost, as recorded in Acts.
    Some Muslims in India are supposed to have been able to recite portions of the Koran without having learned Arabic, but since many Muslims who attend _madrassahs_ in S Asia learn nothing but recital by rote of the Koran, without necessarily being able to understand a word of what they are reciting, that can be discounted.
    According to WJ Samarin (see below), there are a number of examples of what he terms xenoglossia, but should, in fact, be called non-conative xenographia, where people in a trance state have written messages in languages they do not know. None of these examples are in any sense religious, but must be classified as belonging to the realm of alleged paranormal phenomena.
    Glossolalia is not confined to Christianity, and linguistic studies of it, whether of recordings of Pentecostalist worship or charismatic meetings, or of non-Christian (usually animist) glossolalia, show that the utterances involved are essentially meaningless.
    In fact, Samarin gives a useful definition of the phenomenon: ‘[a] meaningless but phonologically structured human utterance believed by the speaker to be a real language but bearing no systematic resemblance to any natural language, living or dead.’ (Source: http://www.philosophy-religion.org/handouts/pdfs/Samarin-Pages_48-75.pdf.)
    A study by Newberg et al (2006)*, using Single Photon Emission (Computerised) Tomography (SPECT), to produce false colour, cross-sectional images of the brain showing cerebral blood flow (CBF), found that, in a group of five women of mean age 45 years, all of whom were Pentecostal or Charismatic Christians, when a comparison was made between them singing in English and then speaking in tongues, there were some significant changes.
    When the women stopped singing and started tongue-speaking, there was a decrease in blood flow to the pre-frontal cortices, the left caudate nucleus, and the left temporal pole. On the other hand, there were increases in blood flow to the left superior parietal lobe (SPL) and the right amygdala. Any asymmetry in thalamic activity manifested in singing reversed entirely during glossolalia.
    The decreased CBF to the pre-frontal lobes is consistent with the subjects’ stated lack of intentional control over their glossolalia, and the decrease was especially noteworthy in the left hemisphere. The changes affecting the left caudate and right amygdala may relate to the subjects’ emotional state, and those to the thalamus (a major cortical-subcortical relay) once again to intention; but the authors were unable to speculate about the possible reason for the change to the left, and usually dominant, SPL – the left half of Brodmann Area 5. (See: http://braininfo.rprc.washington.edu/centraldirectory.aspx?type=a&ID=1050.)
    Felician et al (2004) showed, using fMRI (functional [nuclear] Magnetic Resonance Imaging), that the left SPL may play a key part in body part localisation – the integration of the positions of limbs to create complex representations of postures, and tongue-speaking is very often accompanied by gestures, or dancing. (Source: Felician, O., Romaiguere, P., Anton, J.-L., Nazarian, B., Roth, M., Poncet, M. & Roll, J.-P., [2004], ‘The role of human left superior parietal lobule in body part localization’, Wiley InterScience, http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/journal/108070551/abstract?CRETRY=1&SRETRY=0.) This may, therefore, account for the Newberg et al study’s findings regarding the SPL, especially as the subjects had relatively large freedom of movement during the course of the experiment.
    Of course, there is much more to Pentecostalism and the Charismatic Movement than speaking in tongues, but it is tongue-speaking, and one’s ability, or lack of it, to tongue-speak, that is the shibboleth of whether or not one has been ‘baptised with (or in) the Holy Spirit’.
    Quite apart from the completely false – and I would say heretical – theology of this, with its cultic and Gnostic-style salvational elitism – there is the simple fact that tongue-speaking is, at best, of very limited value even to those who make use of it.
    If I may conclude on a personal note. Of the members of the (Anglican) Charismatic Group to which I belonged, one subsequently became a member of a New Age cult, two developed schizophrenia, one joined an American fundamentalist church, and married its Pastor, and another left her husband for a relationship with a lesbian. The group itself was disbanded by the local clergy after some of the members tried ‘curing’ one of the schizophrenics with a DIY exorcism. After all that, I can well understand what Bishop Butler, and Mgr Ronald Knox, meant by ‘Enthusiasm’, and why they so strenuously counselled against it!

    *Newberg, A.B., Wintering, N.A., Morgan, D. & Waldman M.R. (2006), ‘The measurement of regional cerebral blood flow during glossolalia: a preliminary SPECT study’, Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging 148:67-71.

  8. James H. says:

    “it is tongue-speaking, and one’s ability, or lack of it, to tongue-speak, that is the shibboleth of whether or not one has been ‘baptised with (or in) the Holy Spirit’.”

    – which is simply not the case, in the Catholic charismatic renewal. We’ve all heard horror stories from the fever-swamps of DIY churches.

    “…cultic and Gnostic-style salvational elitism” is a trademark of any group which insists they are The Way The Church Is Going – Latin Mass inquisitors and Liberation Theology commissars being the most familiar.

    I’m afraid I have little time for MRI imaging of the brain in relation to religious experience – it seems to beg a chicken-and-egg question, and is ultimately of limited relevance: not unlike saying, ‘that’s not a light – it’s a current passing through a tungsten filament which has high resistance and high melting point, all within a globe filled with nitrogen!’ So?

  9. Horace says:

    James H suggests:- ‘that’s not a light – it’s a current passing through a tungsten filament which has high resistance and high melting point, all within a globe filled with nitrogen!’ – but as Magritte observed ‘Mais “ceci n’est pas une pipe”‘.
    Science looks for explanations of phenomena which are rational and consistent.
    Xenoglossia (knowledge of a language one has never learnt) [Acts 2,8-11] (although not irrational or inconsistent) is, pretty well by definition, not accessible to scientific study.
    The same is not true of glossolalia – vocalisation consisting of strings of syllables arranged into word-like and sentence-like units. We can, for example, ask – Do the syllables and patterns of speech reflect the speaker’s native language? And in the same vein we can legitimately ask – is there a difference in the way that the brain is functioning when we compare the activity of singing and the activity of glossolalia? This is not by any means the same thing as “MRI imaging of the brain in relation to religious experience”.

  10. Horace says:

    Apropos Xenoglossia – the following blog reference may be of interest:-
    http://sanctepater.blogspot.com/2009/07/touched-by-padre-pios-guardian-angels.html

  11. Iona says:

    The 2006 Newberg et al. study, which R.M. Blaber describes, apparently looks at the differences between “singing in English” and “speaking in tongues”.
    Mightn’t the differences found relate to the contrast between singing and speaking, rather than the contrast between using English and using “tongues”?

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