Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Problem of Tongues

As everyone but Christians knows, Christians apply a double standard to their own religious experiences versus similar experiences in other religions. But it's worse than that. The double standard is completely in-house.

Specifically, I'm addressing the inconsistency of the following three positions:

1. My experiences of God are a valid reason for thinking God is real.
2. The gift of tongues has ceased.
3. Many people who speak in tongues are solid Christians.

The doublethink is so glaring that I hardly need to do more than list the positions. Apparently, lots of Christians who are very close to God don't know the difference between a psychological phenomenon (or demons) and an experience of God. “But not my experience! I experienced God! How can you explain that?” With great ease...

If God really was in relationships with people, and God really did speak to people through a certain branch of a certain religion, you would expect them to agree on what God said. Or at least they should agree on a much easier question: how do you know God is the one who is speaking?

But if God doesn't exist or if he doesn't reach out to people through personal relationships, what we should expect to find is an enormous level of disagreement on the most basic questions about how it is that God really talks, and what it is that he says. This is exactly what we find.

One rationalization is that maybe God makes his voice unclear for some reason, or in other words, he likes making it look precisely the way it would look if he wasn't there. It's possible. It's also possible that the reason pictures of aliens are always really grainy is that, well, aliens are just really grainy.

The far better explanation is that Jesus' sheep do not hear his voice, and they do not follow him. Instead, they are scattered in every direction as they all insist that they are the ones' following the correct voice.

None of this excludes the position that tongues are fake and Pentecostal Christians are therefore borderline heretics. Perhaps exactly one of the scattered sheep are following the correct voice. But if this is your position, please hold to it consistently. Don't try to tell me that God is at work spreading the Gospel throughout the world. Third world Christianity is very Pentecostal – consistent cessationists and I are in agreement that all that's going on is the realignment of superstitions.

On the other side a different inconsistency is quite common:

1. Non-Christians disbelieve due to rebellion against God and his laws.
2. The gift of tongues is real.
3. Many cessationists are solid Christians.

The problem here is that cessationists who are solid Christians show that the reality of tongues can be denied for other than hedonistic or rebellious reasons. What would motive a cessationist to accept all the restrictions of Christianity while denying themselves the most dramatic parts? The answer is that it's not about “motivation,” but about actually thinking that tongues are not for real. Once this line of reasoning is accepted, it is extremely hard to maintain the impossibility of non-Christians disbelieving simply because they actually think that Christianity is false. Hell then becomes very difficult to justify when the litmus test is belief.

None of this excludes the position that tongues are real and cessationists are lukewarm believers or less. But if this is your position, don't try to tell me true Christianity existed between, say, 100AD and 1900AD.

It is noteworthy that the more consistent positions often result in more disagreeable people and more divisions in the church. This is the dilemma of trying to think of many different Christianities as some mystically unified “Christianity.” Churches and Christian organizations must choose among being intellectually shallow, segregated along theological lines, or a cauldron churning out apostasy whenever the wrong combination of views interact.