In recent discussion we have discovered that many of us have had the experience of hearing voices inside our heads, or of seeing bright colours and sometimes hallucinations through closed eyes. As far as I know, none of our contributors are given to being over-fanciful, or suffer from schizophrenia. It may well come as a relief to some that such experiences are so common.
But it brings into my mind speaking in tongues which is described in the New Testament and, for many people, continues to be part of a normal Christian life. I distinguish between xenoglossia, which is the gift of being able to speak in the listener’s own language, and glossolalia, which is speaking in an unknown language – which may be susceptible of interpretation.
Xenoglossia appears to have occurred at the first Pentecost when the apostles addressed the crowds. Although the listeners spoke diverse languages “each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.” The Acts clearly indicates that it was a gift of the Holy Spirit. And some 3000 entered the Church that day. And in St Mark (16) we read that, “these signs will accompany those who believe: by using my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes in their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.” However, my confidence in the reliability of Scripture does not persuade me to experiment with either snakes or poisons.
Most of the New Testament remarks on glossolalia are those of Paul in 1 Corinthians 14. Paul distinguishes speaking in tongues from prophecy (I assume that by prophecy means declaring salvation through Christ).
While he encourages those who have the gift of tongues, he is clear that it is inferior to prophecy. I get the impression that the former is damned with faint praise. In itself, the gift of tongues builds up the speaker, while prophesy builds up the Church. As such the gift of tongues is of no value unless the tongues are interpreted. Otherwise, they are meaningless and unproductive. Nevertheless, he remains clear that the tongues are speaking in mysteries of the Spirit.
Whenever I have written of glossolalia in a Catholic context, I have quickly been made aware that a number of vocal Catholics have either witnessed or participated in it. They seem mainly to have been pentecostal or charismatic, and they have often been through some relatively dramatic conversion or renewal process. Their conversation is overtly Christian, and they are enthusiastic to tell others of their experience.
I have no experience of the Alpha course (plenty on the Internet) but I understand that participants experience glossolalia – particularly on the weekend together during the standard course, when they are studying the work of the Holy Spirit. And why not? It’s there, loud and clear, in the New Testament.
My own opinion is worth little here. But I think that this seeking after dramatic experience of the gifts of the Spirit is dangerous, prone to quackery and capable of bringing Christianity into disrepute. It is the province of those who seek “signs” to bolster their faith. If people attempt to dissuade me on the grounds of Paul’s words, I merely remind them that he thought prophesy to be superior, and that – as far as I can – is what I stick to. On glossolalia I remain sceptical.
I would be interested to hear what others think. In addition, it would be useful to learn some more about the Alpha course. I do not wish to be unfair to it. Has anyone done a course or has friends who have told them about their experience?