“Listening in tongues”

In a recent post on Quaker Pagan Reflections, the blog he shares with his helpmate Cat, Peter Bishop of Mt. Toby (MA) Friends Meeting has given me a phrase which I believe speaks to the heart of Quaker faith and practice.

Peter writes about “how difficult it is to express in words what worshiping in silence means to us,” even across the perceived barriers within Quakerism itself:

I see [some] Friends…using Christian language and Biblical reference points to anchor themselves in the deep, spiritual dimensions of their practice. It works for them—works so well, in fact, that if they were asked to give up the particularity of Christian myth, they would feel robbed of their voice, unable to speak about their religious experience at all.

That same Christian language is deeply alienating to [other] Friends, who often come to Quakerism as refugees from Christian churches of the kind Jesus was talking about when he said,

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.” (Matthew 23:13 NIV)

Talking to one another across this kind of theological divide is hard. It is hard enough that many liberal Friends shy away from talking at all about what happens in worship, afraid of giving offense or of being offended, afraid of being shut down or told to shut up. We worship together in the deep intimacy of silence, but…often we rely on mind-reading when really we need to be talking.

Peter continues by describing the situation in New England Yearly Meeting.

As part of both Friends General Conference and Friends United Meeting, NEYM includes a wide spectrum from the very liberal to the evangelical. In past years, I used to describe us as “teetering on the brink of schism,” but this past year we seemed to push through to a place of greater unity.

The phrase that came out of the 2011 Sessions was “listening in tongues,” and it describes the way liberals and evangelicals can try to hear into one another’s language, metaphors, and mythology, getting down to the root experience of worship that we all share.

There is the key phrase: listening in tongues.

Pentecost, by Maximino Cerezo Barredo, Spanish painter and Claretian priest, born in Villaviciosa (Asturias) in 1932
Peter describes clearly the dilemma of all people of benevolent faith in this pluralistic modern world. The first Friends all “spoke Christian”—though in bold and idiosyncratic ways—because all the Europeans of their day shared the common Christian mythos. Now, knowing that people across the world express such faith in many religious and non-religious languages, we long to affirm and embrace them all, yet we often do not know how to hear or to be heard across the boundaries of our differing belief systems.

I experience this dilemma in my own meeting, as well as in the larger non-Quaker world. The predominant mode of public expression both in meeting and among my many friends and colleagues is liberal humanism. Even if individual faith and practice arise for some from private religious experience, these dear folks do as Peter describes so well. They never speak publicly in religious language. They rarely describe whatever faith sustains them in private.

I share this shyness, yet increasingly it leaves me uncomfortable. My discomfort has to do with the disconnect between the way I experience my faith and practice personally and the carefully non-religious language of my meeting and my friends. I am universalist in my beliefs, yet I am also one of those Peter describes as “using Christian language and Biblical reference points to anchor themselves in the deep, spiritual dimensions of their practice.”

My father was a Lutheran minister, my mother, the daughter of a Lutheran minister. They were both 1950s liberals. In their parenting they witnessed to a welcoming God who knows no boundaries between people, not a jealous God who imposes orthodoxies. It was therefore easy and natural for Christianity to become my “native language” of faith and practice.

By the time I reached seminary in 1972, though, I was wrestling with Peter’s dilemma. Along with my teachers and fellow students, I was seeing more deeply into the personal and communal realities to which Christian theology and practice at its best can point. Even so, I stumbled over this religion’s perceived exclusion of the non-Christian people whom I had come to know and affirm in college.

More immediately crucial for me, inner truth was finally compelling me to come out as a homosexual man. At that time the Lutheran church did not yet welcome such people into the ministry. After one term I left seminary, found a gay-friendly community in which to live and work, and gradually learned to integrate this essential dimension of myself into my personal and public life. Without intending to, though, in the process of coming out of the gay closet I hid Christianity away in a closet of its own. My faith in God went with me, but for several decades I could not in good conscience use the religious language of my birth.

What brought me back to that language, some years after my becoming a convinced Friend, was the leading to reclaim the religious awareness of my childhood. Not the belief system, but the experience. Doing so revealed to me that the Jesus of my childhood—Jeshua, the historical man of Galilee—is still my master and teacher.

I know privately what such religious metaphors represent for me. I do not mean “master and teacher” in the doctrinally defined Christian sense, nor do I mean it in the mundane sense of a historical “wise man” whose teachings I follow. In the way my brain uses its imaginative powers to symbolize and personify transformative inner experience, it is as if I know Jesus as a person who is still present, teaching me.

Here is Peter’s dilemma on the most intimate level. How do I speak with either orthodox Christians or refugees from Christendom or non-Christians or non-religious people, without their learned associations with “Christian language and Biblical reference points” getting in the way of hearing what I actually long to share with them? How do I hear them past my own assumptions about the deeper meaning of their various languages?

Some years ago on this blog I wrote:

I have come to understand that no religious language, whether in scripture, in doctrine, in written or spoken ministry, or in personal testimony, describes the ultimate Reality in any objective way. Rather, at its best such language can only describe the human experience of interaction with that Reality.

This is not because the Real is unknowable, but because human language is limited. Even at its most articulate, the human brain is not able to abstract its intimate experience into concepts and symbols which are at once fully nuanced and also wholly unambiguous to others.

How can we share with each other our common experience of this one Reality, and yet allow that our individual relationships with it are idiosyncratic and, in their inmost core, inexpressible?

This challenge remains at the heart of my efforts to live my faith with others and to help them give voice to their own faiths. How do we teach each other—how do we allow ourselves to be taught—the blessed talent of “listening in tongues”?

Blessèd Be,

16 comments On “Listening in tongues”

  • What an honor to have the words that echo for Peter and for me speak so powerfully to and through you, too, Michael! Thank you for writing this piece–just today, these thoughts were very much on both of our minds as we talked together after worship.

    I bet a lot of us are wrestling with this right now.

    • Michael Austin Shell

      Thanks Cat. I knew Spirit was moving when I read Peter’s post, because I had just been speaking about the same matter with my fellow members on the steering committee for Quaker Universalist Fellowship. My post is a fleshing out of a presentation of personal views which I shared with them.

      More to come.


  • Wow Mike, that is such a powerful post, I will need to come back and read it again and again. This first reading touched me deeply and I found myself nodding in agreement with you. My native tongue is christian in origin and many of the rituals, myth and symbolism move me to experience, yet I sometimes shudder with the Christian-ese language, which has also been used against me. I feel quite lost though without a ‘common language’ I can share with others which can build a sense of community – I feel I’m always translating conversations, always sifting, and in doing so miss a connection. I think if I return to using Christian language as semantic expression of my faith, the actual words will mean something different to me now than they did before. It is as difficult as trying to describe the colour red. Maybe silence would satisfy me for now. I’ll be back – thanks for the post.

    • Michael Austin Shell

      Thanks so much, Louise.

      It’s a complex matter, even if I just limit my attention to those who speak some “dialect of Christian.”

      I have known soul-deep evangelical Christians with whom I could easily converse or correspond, because they trusted their own faith and did not feel threatened by the different religious language of others.

      On the other hand, I have struggled with those folks I sometimes call “Christianists,” for whom Christianity is actually more of an authoritarian political ideology than a lived and breathed religion (though they would never acknowledge this). They seem threatened by any speech which strays from what they consider the orthodox formulas. I can’t say they don’t trust their faith, yet they don’t act as if they do.


  • Larry Spears


    Thanks for this formulation. There is also a new book by JKA Smith, Thinking in Tongues: Pentecostal Contributions to Christian Philosophy (Eerdmans, 2010). It reminded me that Quakers are the silent pentecostals. This book deals with the other end of the spectrum of language. Whether we speak in tongues, listen in tongues or think in tongues, we are all groping in the fog, pointing out to one another where the bread is to be found.


    • Michael Austin Shell

      Thanks for this suggestion, Larry. I’ll take a look.

      You write: “…pointing out to one another where the bread is to be found.”

      That sums up the real concern for me, the core reason for wanting to be able to speak and listen across perceived boundaries.


  • Larry Spears


    Another take on the basic idea of language finitude and importance that you raise is from G. Rabassa, If This Be Treason (a meditation on the art of translation) which includes the following quotation, “Every act of communication is an act of translation.”


  • We need to be authentic to the message we are given, and not attempt to translate it. My experience was that when I attempted to translate the message I was given into the language of the heterodox meeting I was in, it lacked power. When I resisted that temptation, I was sometimes amazed at how some of the Friends I thought would be most offended by the language found it speaking to them. The Spirit knows best, and usually (but not always) speaks through the human vessel in the language that is naturally authentic to that vessel. And that is the message that should be delivered.

    • Michael Austin Shell

      Thanks, Bill. I completely agree.

      Part of what I am nudging my fellow Friends toward is having the faith and courage to speak simply, in their own languages, what they are led to say, rather than fearing imagined rejection by others. When we wait to speak until we “have to” speak, usually Spirit makes it so that others in meeting “have to” listen.


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  • Thank you, Stephen. Your words move me. I don’t often respond on blog posts, but wanted you to know that.

    I use the concept of “listening in tongues” when I begin facilitating retreats. In January we launched Way of the Spirit: Contemplative Study in Community, based on the model of School of the Spirit out East. We explicitly invite both unprogrammed and Evangelical Friends in the Pacific Northwest. We DID listen in tongues with true grace and Life.

    And a new aspect of the topic arose for us: not only how to speak authentically, but that it is right and helpful to be able to “try on” new language as we speak of our experiences of God. That means while unprogrammed folks felt great relief and joy in speaking of Jesus, Evangelical participants could sense usefulness and ease with words they don’t hear or use so often.

    How do we know what to “try on”? First, we needed each other to speak in our own language, without self-censoring, to be able to hear “where the words come from” (as was said of John Woolman’s ministry to the Natives in Wyalusing). Then a listener could sense if words that were new to him or her touched some Truth, or opened something in their hearts. In our gathered and nurturing circle, anyone could speak the new vocabulary as they were moved. It was extraordinary. Your blog post reminded me, and I am grateful.

    Perhaps we fall away from the Life in our listening or speaking when we are unable to hear to the Inward Guide over the clamor of inner voices urging either self-protection or people pleasing. I’d welcome further thoughts on this.

    • Thanks very much for this, Christine. You speak my mind.

      I value very much these words:

      “[A] new aspect of the topic arose for us: not only how to speak authentically, but that it is right and helpful to be able to ‘try on’ new language as we speak of our experiences of God….

      “How do we know what to ‘try on’? First, we needed each other to speak in our own language, without self-censoring, to be able to hear ‘where the words come from.’ ”

      That second point speaks directly to my original motive for creating this blog.

      Since 2007, I have been “telling myself out loud” in public what I struggle with in wishing to avoid the ambiguities and misperceptions use of “religious language” can invite.

      Now I want to “speak my own language,” in the ways you suggest.


  • Could some of the difficulty arise from a deep difference in approaching religion itself — that is, as a set of laws to be followed, or at least practices to be maintained for good ends, in contrast to some range of deeply personal experiences and insights?

    I believe this is something we all face, no matter how we identify ourselves or how long we’ve been practicing.

    The fact is that SOMETHING happens in Quaker worship, silent or programmed, yet until we can trust one another enough to voice this experience in all of its intimacy and multiplicity, we may likely sense a rift in the fellowship. On one side, some can feel excluded by those who use biblical language. On the other side, some can feel a deep loss by an inability to pray together. At the least, there can be a recognition of a lack of unity in the deepest currents in the meeting or a superficial tone to our conversations.

    The concept of “listening in tongues” seems to point us back toward each other’s EXPERIENCES, and perhaps even overlaying them. You wouldn’t listen to the law this way, would you?

  • Pingback: Cat Chapin-Bishop: Open Letter to My Christian Quaker Friends | The Empty Path ()

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