I was first introduced to “speaking in tongues” through the charismatic movement in the Anglican Church. For those who have no idea what this might be–it is the practice in some Protestant churches and in some sub groups of the Catholic Church for people who are in a highly emotional worship setting to lose rational speech and garble involuntarily in a jumbled bibble babble of speech.

This happens most commonly within the Pentecostal tradition and is accompanied by free flowing worship, repetitive music, powerful, emotionally charged preaching which is often linked with a healing ministry. Often people are overcome with emotion and will be “slain in the Spirit” which means they faint. You can see an extreme example of it here.

When the person speaks in tongues or is slain in the spirit they report that they are overcome with ecstasy–feeling and extreme release, a sense of peace and happiness.

Twice this week I’ve been asked what is going on and what I make of it.

First of all, the Catholic approach to the paranormal is always to look for the natural explanation first. Whether it is a report of demonic possession, a bagel that has the image of St Mother Teresa in it, a Marian apparition, a levitating saint or an incorrupt body of a saint we always look for the natural explanation first.

So what are the natural explanations for the strange phenomenon of speaking in tongues and being slain in the Spirit?

First of all we have to remember that a person who goes to one of these meetings usually not only believes in what is going on, but they are going there expecting something wonderful to happen. This is a very strongly determinative factor.

Secondly, they have attended a meeting with other people who also believe what is happening is real and they too are expecting something to happen. They have all probably been to a meeting like this before or have heard about what goes on, so they are not only expecting but wanting something spectacular to happen.

When enough people who want this to happen gather together in one place the group psychology becomes pretty overwhelming. Then the music, the preaching and the atmosphere are all conducive to breaking down the individual’s emotional and rational boundaries. The preaching is long and emotionally high octane. The music is extremely emotional and repetitive and breaks down one’s boundaries.

When all this combines the rational boundaries are broken and the person can shift into a higher state of consciousness, experience extreme happiness and joy and speaking in tongues is the result.

Is speaking in tongues always a sign of the supernatural gifts of the Holy Spirit? Not necessarily. We know that speaking in tongues is evidenced in other religions when people transcend their normal boundaries of rational consciousness. Therefore the phenomenon itself must simply be a human capability.

Likewise laughing, weeping with uncontrollable ecstasy and fainting are all exhibited in circumstances other than Christian religion. Witness the bizarre scenes when girls go crazy over pop singers like the Beatles or some other boy band.

These phenomena therefore, are simply the result of human capabilities under certain highly emotional group experiences. Another example might be the crowd behavior at sporting or political rallies. People go beyond themselves.

Does this mean that speaking in tongues is always bad? No. Its just that it is not always a sign of supernatural activity of the Holy Spirit. What can happen is that the person becomes vulnerable and open when they go into an exalted state of consciousness.

This means they can be open to the working and power of the Holy Spirit to receive healing or a sense of peace and a genuine religious experience. However, they might simply be having a religious “high” that can be explained in these other ways. Furthermore, if they are vulnerable they might also be making themselves vulnerable to dark spiritual forces.

If the preacher is involved in New Age practices, voodoo or dark forces, or even if they pretend to be Christian, their power and their own state of exalted consciousness could be grounded in darker powers.

My main advice when faced with such things is, “If the charismatic meeting is subject to the local Catholic Church and approved by the diocese, then what goes on will usually be ok.” When attracted by anything else I would advise against it because one will be introduced to non-Catholic (and often anti Catholic) preaching and worse. Furthermore, the expectations that come from these meetings are very high.

When somebody goes to a meeting like this and is not healed of their physical illnesses and when they come down from the spiritual high and realize they are still locked in an unhappy marriage or a terrible job or their life is still grim they can become very disheartened.

As to the money the preachers expect? Well, that’s yet another worrying aspect.