There has been a lot of interest in the press recently in Justin Welby saying in a radio interview that he ‘speaks in tongues’ every day.
People will respond to this in different ways. To some people it will seem strange and freakish. To charismatic Christians it will be a sign that he is one of them. I don’t speak in tongues myself, though I know the research on it quite well. I don’t regard it as freakish, and I think it can be helpful. I don’t think there is any miracle involved.
Many of those who speak in tongues claim that they are miraculously able to speak some language to which they have had no other exposure. I don’t believe that claim. It is hard to settle conclusively, but the utterances of people speaking in tongues are clearly not language in the usual sense. The utterances tend to be more rhythmic and repetitive than actual language. They are just not the same kind of thing as an actual language.
So it is not what the Apostles were claimed to do at the first Pentecost, described in the Acts of the Apostles. And there is no miracle involved. It seems instead to be what St Paul called ‘ecstatic utterance’ (I Corinthians 14).
Nevertheless, speaking in tongues seems to be helpful to many people, and it is not hard for psychologists to understand why that might be so. The intended gist of what is being uttered is clear; it is usually the intended praise of God. But it is rather general mood music; there do not seem to be any specific ideas that could be translated, word by word. There is an analogy with cooing over a baby. The gist is clear, but the utterances are not specific words that are capable of translation.
How do people do it? It seems you need to switch off the normal way people produce speech. People have formulated this in different ways. It seems to be giving the unconscious free reign, or using the intuitive mind rather than the rational one, or regressing to an earlier stage of development, or relying on the right brain rather than the left brain. These various ideas probably come to much the same thing, though they are formulated in different ways.
They also help to explain why it is helpful. We live in an over-rational age, but connection with the spirit of God requires a different mode of consciousness. To speak in tongues, you need to switch to a different mode of consciousness. Speaking in tongues allows you to exercise that different mode.
Looked at spiritually, it is a mode of consciousness that makes it easier for the spirit of God to flow through a person. Looked at psychologically, speaking in tongues gets people in touch with the less rational parts of their minds, and can assist with the integration of personality. There may be truth in both, and there is no contradiction between them.
From this perspective it is entirely understandable why Justin Welby finds it helpful to speak in tongues. I don’t think there is anything weird about that. But I don’t think that he (or anyone else who does it) is speaking a language, and I don’t think it is a miracle.