8/22/09

Praying Without Seizing (Speaking in Tongues): Towards A Theology Of Prayer, Pt. 18

Speaking in tongues is an interesting thing. I have never spoke in tongues myself but have been around people that seemed to be doing it. I know hardcore charismatics who believe it is THE sign of the Holy Spirit in one's life and I know cessationists, those who contend that such gifts ended with the death of the Apostles. While debates have raged on about this topic, all of the arguments seem to say the same thing over and over, mainly because they all use the same approach: Prooftexting.

Prooftexting is what occurs when people open the Scriptures, find a verse and attempt to use it (out of its socio-literary context) to prove a point. You find advocates both for and against tongue-speaking doing this very thing all of the time. In fact, the book that Wayne Grudem recently edited (Are Miraculous Gifts For Today? Four Views) consists of 4 authors who do this very thing for over 350 pages. Not only is this unhelpful in the conversation, it is actually a terrible example of scholarship and even more, a sad promise that seems to suggest that the conversation will never make it any further.

So, in this post, I want to take a different approach to the issue and thus, attempt to offer some different thoughts. As usual, I take as my starting point, my definition of prayer: Attending to the presence of God both around us and in us. Now, as I have said in previous posts, one of the great things about prayer is that if we are each attending to God's presence in a genuine manner, then that not only means that we share something in common but to some degree, at the least, we now have a shared goal. Another aspect of this is that if we share the same Holy Spirit, that is, if we have the same Spirit indwelling us both, then, there is more of a possibility of authentic community happening.

One of the problems with people citing portions of Scripture such as Paul's Corinthian letters when it comes to "tongue speaking" is that they often forget that Paul's words are delivered to a community that is quite divided about spiritual matters and practices. It is clear from 1 Cor. 1 that some people in Corinth are suggesting that at their baptisms, depending on whom they were baptized by (e.g. Cephas, Apollos, etc.), they received certain or particular spiritual gifts. So, fights ensued over why it was better to be baptized by one person and not the other and over which gifts were better. This leads Paul to address the issue of "what is true, authentic spirituality". Indeed, the whole Corinthian correspondence seeks to hammer out this issue.

In 1 Cor. 13-15, we encounter more of this division. Paul even adopts the political metaphor that was popular during his time (and before), of the body. Often times public rhetors would deliver speeches on how Athens was a body and its citizens were parts of the body. The speeches were given to encourage people to be good citizens. Well, Paul uses the same idea except when he uses it, he does so to talk about what makes people good citizens of God's kingdom and family. Evidently, Paul needs to curtail some issues and so, he uses such a metaphor! Without simply "verse citing" or "prooftexting", the point is: Paul wants the Corinthian people to get a firm grasp on what authentic spirituality is.

In the end, it seems as though to Paul, true, authentic spirituality is a spirituality that allows the Holy Spirit to bring about peace, (comm)unity and reconciliation. It also seems evident that while gifts are employed by individuals, they should be used in the main, for communal edification. To be sure, self-edification, as in the case of tongue speaking (in private), always bows to communal edification. Yet, communal edification can occur, Paul says, if there is an interpreter present. Otherwise, persons who feel the urge to speak aloud in tongues, should just shut up! He makes such remarks because for Paul, this highly divided community needs its focus to be on TRUE spirituality, that is, a spirituality rooted in seeking the presence of God both around us and in us. Seeking self-edification or public acclaim only causes division, disunity and rupture in the community--all characteristics that run contrary to what the Spirit desires to accomplish.

So, the argument put forth here is not regarding whether tongues have ceased or not. In fact, many Christians still claim to speak in tongues today, as do many Muslims, Hindus, etc. (Christianity, to the surprise of many, is not the only religion that claims ecstatic speech as a spiritual gift or enterprise!!!). Instead, what I am getting at is: If God is the Most-authentic and Most-relational and Most-genuine being in existence (which, He is, as I have argued in prior posts), then, as we seek to experience His presence genuinely and authentically in community, to do so, we must above all else, take any focus off of ourselves! In prayer, the focus is always first and foremost on God and about God; we enter into prayer to seek out God's wants and desires!

So, enough of the "unorderly" charismata and glossalia (look those words up if you don't know them!), enough of the spiritual show-stopping and seizing because all it does is shift focus from God to humans. Instead, lets enter into spiritual events such as prayer with the idea that in seeking His presence, we will lessen and He will become greater! And let us keep in mind, these words of Henri Nouwen: "...the spiritually reborn always call people together into community because the Spirit of God gathers all believers into one body. And the communities formed by the Spirit are not refuges designed to protect the interests of their members or to keep them at a safe distance from the world. They are holy places where everyone is intensely present first of all to the "very person of God, or more exactly, to the three Divine Persons: to the Holy Spirit and through the Holy Spirit to Jesus and the Father."

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