The fancy word for tongues is glossolalia. Having been initiated into a charismatic evangelical religious community, I have experience speaking in tongues. The first occurrence arose during a communal worship service, and the exposure was completely involuntary. The altered state induced bliss; it induced ecstasy. After the initial experience, I could access this altered state voluntarily, and at will, but once engaged, the activity became spontaneous and involuntary. I am still able to think and pray in tongues, but recently, I’ve been wondering whether or not I ought to. Is this ability truly a gift from the one and only Holy Spirit? There is evidence that this phenomenon is an outcome of religious practice outside of my belief system, so how do I know that The Bible’s explanation is inerrant truth? What is really happening when I utter these mysterious sounds?
According to The Dana Foundation, neurologists studying the physiological aspects of glossolalia “theorize that a proclivity for glossolalia may involve variability in dopaminergic genes believed to also mediate susceptibility to hypnosis.” Thus, the ability to speak in tongues does not mark exclusive membership in the Annointed by God Club; rather, it marks inherited brain chemistry, and “biological anthropologist Christopher Lynn…thinks glossolalia is best viewed as a dissociative state of consciousness.”
Dissociation, like hypnotic susceptibility, meditation, and hyperfocus (for my fellow ADHDers out there) is an affect of the work of neurotransmitters in the frontal cortex of the brain. Thus, glossolalia, or the ability to speak in tongues, is a neurological phenomenon that can be accessed by anyone. All the same, neurodivergent individuals may be more susceptible to such spontaneous displays of altered consciousness than our neuronormative counterparts.
Does the scientific explanation of this psychosomatic phenomenon preclude the spiritual? I think not. However, I do think it calls into question the ideological interpretation of historical religious events. Perhaps, the account in Acts that states “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in tongues as the Spirit enabled them,” illustrates the impact of synergic worship on the activation of latent neurological abilities. Of course, it could be argued that divine spirit rewarded this collective worship by allowing things to unfold as such. Nevertheless, I do not believe glossolalia evinces annointing or consecration of a select few. On the contrary, I believe it is a phenomenon that reveals yet another thread that unites all of humanity.
I cannot support any version of Christianity that elevates and includes the preordained few to the exclusion of many. For this reason, I believe that the subversive message of the historical Jesus was so covert that even his most zealous adherents misunderstood. The misunderstanding arises out of human nature; we choose to perceive that which affords honor and influence and authority to ourselves via the subservience of others. Christ knew that. In spite of our humanity–the ego and the id–we accessed this ability to speak in tongues. Of course, because we are human, when we receive a gift, it is only natural for us to assume it is a sign of exceptionality, but maybe it was purposed as a provision of parity to facilitate humility, justice, and grace.
With that said, I am grateful for the science. I am grateful to know that this strange, ethereal experience is something available to all. It does not preclude the spiritual dimension; however, it proves in some small way, that the spiritual dimension exists for all. It exists for us and in spite of us, and this, to me, is humbling.
“If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or clanging cymbal.”1 Corinthians 13: 1
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