By Bishop Dave Chikosi
This is a generation that worships at the altar of the god of rationality and critical thinking. This god is fashionable because no one, in their rational mind, wants to be called irrational.
There is no quicker way to tee someone off than to dismiss their views or actions as irrational. No one wants that label attached to their good name.
And very few people want their good name attached to a religious activity that has been labelled by mainstream society as irrational gibberish. The religious practice of speaking in tongues or glossolalia has been labelled that way.
But critics of this practice invariably confuse the irrational with the trans-rational. The two are very different. For an activity to be transrational does not require that we dismiss or delete the rational. Transrational is rationality plus, not minus rationality.
It includes the rational, but transcends it. Transcend it precisely because rationality is inadequate as a means to interpret the totality of reality. While rationality is good for interpreting aspects of reality, it is neither the sum total of all reality, nor is it the be-all and end-all methodology for detecting and deciphering all of our creaturely existence.
The principal theological argument for tongues is made by none other than the great St Paul. And if anyone thinks Paul is some psychotic first century Jewish rabbi deliriously out of touch with reality, then think again.
There has never been, and probably won’t ever be, a greater theologian for the church than this humble apostle. His academic credentials speak for themselves: studied at the feet of Gamaliel (possibly the most famous Jewish professor at the time), spoke fluent Greek, Latin, Hebrew and Aramaic, was a prolific writer, contributing 14 of the 27 books in the New Testament (Of the 14 the Epistle to the Romans was described by English poet Samuel Coleridge as being “unquestionably the most important theological work ever written”).
With all of the above academic credentials, one would expect this highly educated rabbi to vigorously repudiate glossolalia and promptly shut it down at his “tongues-gone-wild” church at Corinth. But Paul does the opposite. Not only does he affirm the usage of tongues, he goes so far as to brazenly state, “I thank my God that I speak in tongues more than all of you” (1 Cor. 14:18)! Why Paul? Several reasons: when I pray in tongues, I am talking to God not man (14:2); I am speaking mysteries to God (14:2b); I am edifying or refreshing myself (14:4); my human spirit is praying (14:14); I am giving thanks to God in the most worthy manner (14:17).
The big thing to note in Paul’s argumentation is this: glossolalia does not have to be rationally cognitive to be God-honoring or beneficial to the practitioner. But this is precisely the problem of secular critical thinkers – they are no fan of this silly notion that the Holy Spirit will communicate directly with the human spirit without making any reference to the cerebral cortex of the human brain. God how dare you? In any case, how can the non-cognitive be cognitively useful? How can the unintelligible possibly be of any benefit to intelligent beings?
The simple answer to all these questions is: Because God says so!” That ought to be good enough an answer for the rational believer. None other than St Paul himself acknowledges that when he speaks in tongues he has no clue what he is talking about! Yet he’s not bothered one bit by it. Why should we be? Yours truly can testify to the same. There have been times in prayer when I have used words that sounded like Kiswahili, only to switch minutes later to a pharyngeal, accentuated language akin to German and then on to some highly intonated Arabic dialect etc. That comes as no surprise – God can speak and understand any of the over 6500 languages on this planet. He scattered them at the Tower of Babel, and brought them all together again on the Day of Pentecost where Babel got reversed.
Some have argued that tongues should always be intelligible to the speaker or the intercessor, but there is no Biblical support for that position. It is quite possible for, for example, for an African intercessor in a remote, rural village to be led by the Spirit to pray in Mandarin without any previous knowledge of the language. Why would God do that?
Possibly because if God had him praying in his mother tongue, he might interfere with the prayer, especially if the prayer is an attempt by the Holy Spirit to sort out some sordid details of his life. So God wisely bypasses his mind via the use of a foreign language (or tongues of men) and gets the job done with zero interference from the intercessor.
But apart from ‘tongues of men” there are also “tongues of angels” which have very little in common with any of the languages spoken here on earth. Tongues of angels are equally unintelligible to the intercessor. The point of their usage is the same as in tongues of men i.e. God uses them to edify the one praying, as well as enable that individual to offer the deepest and most heartfelt praise, worship and honor to God in a language of God’s own choosing.