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Theological Notebook: Working on Sullivan's Theology of "Speaking In Tongues"

I was working today on a section of my dissertation on Francis Sullivan's theology of the charismatic movement that dealt with the phenomenon called glossolalia or "speaking in tongues." I had read my way through Sullivan's material I don't know how many times by this point, but, as is often the case, writing clarified my thinking, and I found that I was especially struck by one part of Sullivan's approach. The question at this point had to do with the fact that there tended to be an "either/or" in the writing about "speaking in tongues" done by both researchers in the scientific study of religious phenomena, and by researchers writing from a religious perspective: that "tongues" was supposed to be either an actual foreign language unknown to the speaker, or that it was ecstatic utterances, brought about by an extreme (and possibly disturbed mental state. Sullivan, I thought, pointed the way to a third option that was much more reasonable and satisfying:
Sullivan instead casts it as something more akin to daydreaming. This analogy has much to recommend it. The analogy fits comfortably with the first-person reporting and the scientific studies that agree that tongues is neither speaking previously-unknown and established foreign languages (technically distinguished from glossolalia as “xenoglossia”) nor are produced in a profoundly altered mental state. The analogy to daydreaming involves a sort of conscious relaxation into aspects of what might be the subconscious mind, with the sort of mental floating from one image or scenario to another that characterized daydreaming, but in this case is a sort of vocal “free association” directed in prayer. A specifically theological assessment of this analogy is equally satisfying, particularly from the perspective of Catholic theology, because a spiritual gift that involves the relaxation of the conscious mind into a more raw and subconscious flow of prayer would very much fulfill the Catholic axiom and expectation that “grace builds on nature.”
It is true that the factors I have thus far considered could all be described as human and natural ones. However, I am convinced that in many cases there is a genuine work of divine grace involved in a person’s beginning to speak in tongues. The act of “letting go,” of “yielding” to tongues, can be truly symbolic of a much deeper surrender to the Lord. It can be the “breakthrough” that was needed in order for the person to give his life fully to God. … I see a work of grace in the desire for such a transforming gift of the Spirit, and in the attitude of openness to the consequences which such a transformation could have in one’s life.
Tongues can still function as a significant sign of such a spiritual surrender to God, but without having to carry the burden of being the decisive “proof” that is has often been in Classical Pentecostalism. This is a necessary consequence of a world where grace builds on nature, giving the critical observer no scientific “control group” of the sort necessary in the experimentation of the physical sciences: there is no “purely natural” world to examine apart from the presence of grace.
The proof, of course, of whether a real “baptism in the Holy Spirit” has taken place will be the subsequent transformation of the person’s life, not his speaking in tongues when prayed over. The merely natural factors, I believe, can account adequately for a person’s speaking in tongues, but they cannot account for a deep spiritual renewal.
This approach to tongues that Sullivan proposes also possesses a significant catechetical potential in that it preserves an authentically spiritual reading of the phenomenon without putting the decisive weight upon it that Pentecostalism has. It is demystified in itself when it is understood in a way that describes it both as part of a normal psychology (the ability to daydream or free associate) and as part of a true spirituality that recognizes something in the spiritual realm beyond just the psychological.

An encouragement to the freedom of spontaneous prayer is something Sullivan marks as characteristic of a charismatic group. Such freedom is exemplified in this spiritual gift of tongues, but that is only a graced version of the authentic freedom being aspired to, and is not to be solely identified with such freedom and prayer.
It seems to me an elegant piece of description. It manages to both be comprehensive in dealing with the phenomenon and, to my mind, does not shortchange or dismiss either experiential or scientific descriptions or studies that have been done on the subject. And it makes it something that is easy to integrate into the variety of spiritualities and theologies in the Church without making it the "all or nothing" or "litmus test" affair that it has been in Classical Pentecostalism.
Tags: dissertation, francis a. sullivan s.j., mysticism/spirituality, theological notebook
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