Reflections on tongues and the problem of thinking about deity.
The first recorded post-ascension miracles in the New Testament are a sound from heaven filling the house, the appearance of cloven tongues of fire, and Peter and the apostles beginning “to speak with tongues, as the Holy Ghost gave them utterance.” In this speaking with tongues in a multitude encompassing at least seventeen nations, “every man heard them speak in his own language.”
This gift of tongues is not one we hear of very often anymore. To speak once and be heard in a dozen languages… it’s quite the miracle.
A more common modern understanding of tongues is that spoken of by Paul in his letter to Corinth: “Let him that speaketh in an unknown tongue pray that he may interpret. For if I pray in an unknown tongue, my spirit prayeth, but my understanding is unfruitful.” The derisive word for this is “gibberish”. While it would be nice sometimes not to be constrained to imperfect language in communing with deity, the miracle here is… not obvious.
I not infrequently hear of a third kind of gift of tongues, the divine gift of knowing one particular language when it is needed. This gift, which might be termed Peter’s gift on a smaller scale, is usually an augmentation of individual efforts to learn a language and often most clearly manifest in its removal post hoc.
I myself experienced a backward variant of these gifts when I was a proselytizing missionary in the Bronx years ago. While there, the only way I could tell when someone switched between English, Jamacian English, and Patois was the level of confusion exhibited by my fellow missionaries. I suppose one might term this an “interpretation of tongues”. A few months after my return I heard a Jamacian on the radio and was hardly able to follow anything he said.
Sometimes I pause and reflect on this apparent diversity of gifts all falling under the same name. As I do, I find myself surprised at the assumption, implicit in labeling gift of the spirit, that God will constrain himself to neatly boxed-up gifts. It is difficult to think of deity without bringing him down to the level of our minds.