Speaking in Tongues

Author: David Christopher Lane
Publisher: Fate Magazine
Publication date: 1986

E-mail David Christopher Lane directly at dlane@weber.ucsd.edu

I want to go back to the home base now.


Chapter Three



Toward a New Understanding of Glossolalia

The first time I heard of speaking in tongues was in 1972 in Brother
August's sophomore religion class at Notre Dame High School.  August
had a deep interest in the Charismatic movement which had been
sweeping through Roman Catholicism for the past four or five years.
In class he played album recordings of Christians baptized in the
spirit who spoke in glossolalia.  To substantiate the phenomenon
Biblically, Brother August often referred to Chapter Two of Acts
where the apostles of Jesus became filled with the Holy Spirit and
manifested a series of divine gifts.

Although I found the topic of glossolalia fascinating, I did not
really believe in it.  Even at 15 years old I knew how easily the
unconscious mind can trick us.  Little did I realize that in just a
few weeks' time I would undergo an extraordinary spiritual
experience and speak in tongues.

It all began one night at Loyola University in southern California
in March 1972.  Brother August had been taking a large number of
students to the weekly prayer meetings and masses held at the
college.  One day he invited me and my friend Joe Maria to go
along.  We agreed, not really sure what was in store for us.

There were about 300 people that night.  First there was some
communal singing followed by testimonies by individuals who had been
saved by Jesus and baptized in the spirit.  The stories ranged from
simple narratives of personal transformation ("I was trapped into
taking drugs and the Lord helped me to see the light") to amazing
accounts of physical healing ("I had cancer of the colon and the
doctors didn't give me much chance for survival; I prayed to Jesus
and felt infused with a wondrous light.  When I went back for my
checkup the doctors informed me there had been a remission.  They
just couldn't believe it.  I could.  It was the power of the Holy
Spirit").  Joe and I sat there feeling a bit awed; obviously
something tremendous was happening in these people's lives.

After about an hour of singing and testimonials, everyone went to
the chapel for mass.  This was not the usual Catholic mass that I
had been brought up with.  There was no separation between the altar
and the pews; instead both the priests and the laity stood together
on the altar or right around it.  It was a beautiful and moving
celebration, unlike anything I had experienced before in my Catholic

As the mass ended small prayer groups formed.  It was at this time,
I was told previously by Brother August, that the Holy Spirit really
becomes active.  I don't know why I walked up to one prayer group
but I do know I was pulled by a higher impulse within myself.
Personally, I was not interested in receiving tongues, a healing, or
the gift of prophecy.  I just simply wanted to know: What's really
going on here? Is there a God? What's Truth? Who am I? The typical
but nevertheless profound questions of most introspective teenagers.

The moment is forever instilled in my mind.  I knelt down on the
communal railings before four or five prayer partners and the leader
of the Loyola prayer meetings asked me what I wanted.  With all the
intensity of my heart's quest, I said, "Just to know.  I just want to
know."  I then closed my eyes and those around me prayed aloud.
Then I felt the prayer leader put his hands on my head.  Immediately
I felt a surge of numinous power rush from the depths of my being.
It was as if a torrent of radiant energy was rising from the core of
my heart upwards.  My entire body became flushed with a supernormal
sense of warmth and peace.  I felt incredibly alive and awake, as
though everything before this moment was dull and dreamlike.  The
prayer leader asked me to pray aloud but when I tried I could not
speak.  The mysterious presence within me took control of my vocal
cords and my power of speech.  Literally I heard some other force
speaking from within the depths of my being.   I was speaking in
tongues .  

Nothing had prepared me for this moment.  I never had imagined such
a state of consciousness.  All I could do in the midst of this
spiritual glossolalia was laugh and cry, repeating mentally in my
mind over and over again, "There really is a God.  There really is a
God."  I cannot overemphasize the pure conviction and certainty
which accompanied this baptism of the spirit.  Doubt simply did not
enter in.  In that instant I knew what the saints meant by a
mystical encounter; here was a reality far superior to the waking
state, beyond the constraints of everyday existence.

The phrases that issued forth from me were not consciously produced.
Even to me they sounded completely foreign.  Yet it was not just the
glossolalia that affected me but the keen perception (bodily,
mentally and spiritually) of a Being far greater than I.  Rudolph
Otto and Mircea Eliade have described the experience of Divine
Energy as one of Mysterium Tremendum (tremendous mystery) and Ganz
Andere (wholly other).  These two terms reflect both the majesty and
the distinctive otherworldliness of being baptized in the spirit.

The experience probably didn't last more than 10 minutes; I say
probably because I had no sense of time during the mystical
encounter.  Finally, when I got up off my knees, several of my
friends, including Joe Maria, came over and hugged me.  They had
seen what transpired and were just as amazed as I was.  Brother
August, who also witnessed the event, could not restrain himself; he
broke into obviously joyful tears at seeing one of his own students
receive glossolalia.

I couldn't sleep that night.  My attempts to explain to my parents
what had happened were fruitless.  Who could blame them for not
understanding their son's attempt to describe a transpersonal
encounter with a spiritual being?  Only my brother Joseph got a
partial glimpse of what had occurred.  As I walked into his bedroom,
excited by the fact that I had spoken in tongues, I spontaneously
went into glossolalia for a few seconds.  My brother was astounded.
Although he wasn't quite sure what tongues were, he knew that I
wasn't faking it.

The next day at school I became an instant religious "celebrity."
Classmates with whom I had never spoken before now asked me for
spiritual advice.  "Tell me, Dave, what can I do to get tongues?"
Tongues fever ran through the sophomore class.  Glossolalia suddenly
became wildly popular.  In just a few weeks' time Notre Dame High
School was having its own weekly prayer meetings on Friday nights.
Because I had supposedly been "born again," Brother August asked me
to lead the meetings.  Attendance grew steadily, until finally 
the prayer gatherings reached a critical junction.

Tongues fever reached its limit.  The
meeting was packed with students, parents, priests and brothers.
But the social pressure on the sophomore class to receive the gift
of tongues was so strong that a number of students began to fake
glossolalia to impress their peers and girl friends.  The whole
thing turned into a fiasco.  Dozens of students began pounding their
desks in an emotional frenzy, praising God aloud.  Yelping at the
top of their lungs, these students were trying to imitate
glossolalia.  It was a farce and almost everybody there knew it.
Soon afterwards the prayer meetings at Notre Dame were discontinued.

From that moment on most people at Notre Dame dismissed the whole
phenomenon of tongues as a curious emotional aberration, a misguided
attempt to display one's holiness.  And to a large degree they
probably were correct.  For every genuine case of spiritual baptism
and glossolalia, there were at least 10 that were not authentic.
But what about the rare legitimate expression of glossolalia? What
are we to make of it? Is there really a Holy Spirit ready to
transform those who pray for salvation? Is speaking in tongues truly
a sign of spiritual baptism?
I have been asking these kinds of questions for almost 15 years.
The answers are not simple.  From my own experience, I know the
phenomenon of tongues is more than just a psychological disorder or
the manifestation of remembered preverbal babble.  I am not
convinced, however, that tongues is a unique gift of spiritual
baptism bequested only to God-fearing Christians.  Authentic
glossolalia has something more universal and structural to it than
we may first suspect.  To understand what may be occurring let us
examine closely what happened to me.

First, I was receptive to my prayer partners.  Regardless of what I
ultimately desired, I was at least open to the possibility that my
prayer might be answered.  I remember being particularly sensitive
that night.  On the way to Loyola University one of my friends was
being a bit obnoxious; yet instead of getting angry with him I felt
I should be friendlier.  It worked.  Although this is a trivial
episode, I nevertheless felt strangely uplifted by it, as if I had
done something pleasing to God.  This feeling of receptivity (no
matter how fragile or deep), I believe, plays an important role in
all mystical encounters.

Second, I did not yearn for any specific manifestation of God's
grace, save that of knowledge.  Hence, when I did speak in tongues
it was a complete surprise to me.  Naturally, this unexpectedness
contributed to the feeling of ganz andere (wholly other).  Realizing
that I had nothing to do with the experience (i.e., I was not trying
to imitate or fake glossolalia) also gave me a sense of mystery.
Who or what was infusing me with such numinous energy? During the
experience the answer was quite obvious: the Holy Spirit, God,
Jesus.  But these were all concepts that I had been brought up with
in the Roman Catholic Church.  Are tongues and the Holy Spirit
necessarily connected? I think not.  For example, glossolalia is
neither original nor exclusive to Christianity.  It is worldwide, in
a number of different religions and cultures, many of which predate

Third, I did not experience the spiritual baptism until after the
prayer leader placed his hands on my head.  This would indicate (and
would agree with the mystical schools of kundalini yoga and shabd
yoga) that there was a transmission of some kind from the
Charismatic leader to me, not unlike what occurs during initiation
ceremonies in shamanism or guru-disciple relationships.  It is
important to note here that this particular prayer leader was
well-known for his gift of laying on of hands and as a catalyst for
invoking glossolalia. 

And fourth, speaking in tongues was the after effect (not the cause)
of a profound sensation of physical, emotional, mental, spiritual
well-being.  Hence, tongues should not be thought of as the
progenitor of my mystical encounter but the verbal confirmation of
my inward state of consciousness.  Most critics of the phenomenon
confuse the two and tend to view tongues in isolation.

This now leads us to the central question concerning glossolalia:
Who or what causes tongues to occur? The Holy Spirit? The Higher
Self? The Unconscious Mind? Again, the answer is not simple.  In
some cases, especially when the person is emotionally unstable and
susceptible, tongues could be the product of repression, a momentary
outburst of the unconscious into the waking world.  But this does
not accurately account for superconscious experiences of
glossolalia, where the person awakens to a state beyond the
rational-verbal mind.

In accepting an occurrence such as the one I underwent, we must
acknowledge that there are higher levels of consciousness than the
waking state.  Indeed, as saints, mystics and yogis tell us, we
have the inherent potential of experiencing extraordinary levels of

Is tongues merely a momentary outward expression of an inward,
transpersonal state? In the case of genuine glossolalia I would
argue yes.  There is no evidence that tongues is a verifiable sign
that God/Jesus/Holy Spirit has divinely baptized the person.
Rather, these terms are used only by people born again within a
Christian context.  When a similar experience happens in kundalini
yoga (a transference of shaktipat, for instance), the person
inevitably refers to the language and concepts available within that
system.  In India they would call "tongues" a kriya--an outward
sign of an awakening kundalini (an internal evolutionary force
within man).  Thus, we can see that glossolalia (like the near-death
experience) is a transcultural phenomenon, indicative of a higher
state of consciousness available to all human beings, regardless of

But we must not go too far.  True, tongues represents a level of
awareness beyond that which we are normally used to.  Yet it is just
a preliminary step in the higher worlds.  It would be misleading to
give glossolalia too high a mystical status, especially when even
St. Paul did not give it preferential treatment.  I think it is
appropriate to point out that many people in the Christian world
take tongues to be the be-all and end-all of spiritual experience; I
found this to be the case especially in the Charismatic movement.
Instead of viewing tongues as a very small advance into the mystical
dimension, many take it as a final sign of their salvation.  Such an
absolutist posture ultimately leaves one stranded and unenlightened.
I remember vividly, even at 15, arguing against this kind of
perspective--to no avail.  In fact, for this reason (the narrow
purview of some born-again Catholics) I embarked on a comparative
study of religion and mysticism.  No religion has a monopoly on
truth, as the cliche rightly states.

Therefore, we can see that mystical experience can be misused to
serve outward, doctrinal purposes.  For instance, when one undergoes
the experience of tongues in a fundamentalist Christian setting,
there is a tendency to attribute the encounter to Jesus/God/Holy
Spirit (much as I did).  Yet, as we have previously noted, this is a
social categorization of the event and not one which is intrinsic to
the experience itself.  But because most individuals do not
distinguish between structural (mystical) experience and cultural
upbringing, they confuse and combine the two.  It is perhaps for
this reason that "born-again" Christians can be so adamant in
claiming that the Bible is the only true Word of God.  They have
experienced a higher realm which gives them such conviction and
certainty that they know it is more real than anything the world has
to offer.  Now, when this "transpersonal" encounter is connected to
Christian dogma (due to the particular sociological setting), the
person, knowingly or unknowingly, empowers his chosen religious
beliefs.  Hence, it is not necessarily the Bible itself that gives
rise to the person's certainty of his faith but the direct, personal
experience of a higher spiritual order.

Furthermore, I would argue that most religious conflicts arise from
the mistaken juxtaposition of doctrine and experience, where the
former is given power and justification by the latter.  Tongues is
not the province of any one religion but rather the effect of a
genuine mystical encounter which theoretically can happen to
anybody, anywhere, anytime.  
But glossolalia cannot be literally translated like normal speech;
in a sense, it is the mouth's way of expressing what cannot be truly
spoken in words.  

I would argue, finally, that tongues, as one of the "shells" of
mystical experience, reveals outwardly what has inwardly transpired.
As such, it should not become the object of exclusive glorification.
There are innumerable levels of awareness to uncover in the inner
journey of consciousness.  It would be both a misfortune and a tragedy to
mistake but a tiny drop for the entire ocean.


I wrote this article back in 1985, before I had seriously engaged in
my five year study of quantum mechanics and neuroscience (see my
forthcoming book  Spooky Action At A Distance: Albert Einstein's
Argument With Niels Bohr and Quantum Theory ). If I were to
write this article now, I would most likely try to explain tongues
in terms of the evolution of the brain. Although I still stand by
the utter magnificence of the experience (it still blows my mind
when I reflect on it), my hunch is that speaking in tongues is
simply the inability of the vocal cords to respond to exterior
stimuli when one is undergoing a quasi near-death experience.
I think speaking in tongues is merely the way a normal person's
vocal cords respond when having to speak aloud when undergoing a
mystical excursion. For instance, if the prayer leader had not told
me to speak out, I would  never  have spoken in tongues. If he,
for instance, told me to look for inner light at my third eye I most
likely would have seen beautiful colors. What I am suggesting here
is that the cultural context is determining the direction of one's
numinous encounter. To be sure, the encounter is real (people do
have near-death experiences and people do speak in tongues), but to what depth or intensity that
experience is allowed to develop is dependent upon the spiritual
tradition one finds him/her self in. 
Moreover, how we interpret such experiences is culturally variable,
and not something that is necessarily intrinsic to the experience
itself. And, finally, I am not at all confident that speaking in
tongues is somehow connected to "being born again" in any
ontological sense. Rather, and this point should be highlighted, it
represents what is neurologically possible in different settings;
thus to confuse the plasticity of the brain (or, if you will, the
plasticity of mystical encounters) with the exclusive claims of born
again Christians seems both mistaken and misguided.

E-mail The Neural Surfer directly at dlane@weber.ucsd.edu

I want to go back to the home base now.