I find that lots of what passes for reasoned discourse in religious settings sounds like babble to me, but when it comes to actually babbling in church I’m all for it. Holy babble or speaking in tongues is real. It is a legitimate method for shifting from mochin d’katnut (narrow mind) to mochin d’gadlut (spacious mind).
When it comes to judging religious practices my concern is simple: does it work? Does it help me achieve a higher and more compassionate and just level of consciousness? Speaking in tongues does.
This past Sunday, millions of Christians celebrated Pentecost, the Christian parallel to the Jewish Shavuot. Where Shavuot recalls the giving of Torah to the Jews at Mount Sinai, Pentecost recalls the Holy Spirit inspiring the disciples of Jesus to speak in other tongues. For most Jews and Christians these are memorial days, that is they mark a time in history. But for some in both communities these are times of divine revelation.
Jews stay awake all night on the evening of Shavuot to purify and prepare themselves to receive Torah. Christians in many churches will surrender to the Spirit and speak as the Apostles spoke in languages they do not understand. For both groups the experience not only affirms the truth of their tradition’s history, but also takes that history out of the past and into the present. Revelation is not once and for all, but on–going.
I have spoken in tongues, and it is a wondrous experience. It sounds like babble to the outer ear, but the inner ear knows otherwise. Simply giving myself over to the out–pouring of sound, I felt God’s Presence surround and infuse me. I didn’t choose the “words” I spoke, and made no attempt to decipher them. The message of God’s presence was not carried by what I said, but by the very fact of how I said it.
Dr. Andrew Newberg in his fascinating study of the biology of religious experience, Why We Believe What We Believe, uses neuroimaging to show that speaking in tongues decreases frontal lobe activity, and leaves the speaker with a sense of being spoken through rather than speaking. This is precisely what I felt.
Speaking in tongues is not the same as meditation. When speaking in tongues I never lost a sense of separate self as I have in meditation, but I did loose a sense of willful self: not I, but God in me best describes the experience.
Most Christian churches do not accept speaking in tongues, but millions of Christians will continue to do so. We are hardwired for the experience of spacious mind. We long for it. We need it no less than we need food, water, and shelter. Try it yourself and see.