We’ve all heard of glossolalia, “speaking in tongues” during moments of religious ecstasy. What seems to us nonsensical gibberish has spiritual meaning to the speaker. More important, I’d argue, is “listening in tongues,” especially during unprogrammed meetings of liberal Quakers. I say liberal Quakers because our meetings attract people with startlingly different belief systems. One liberal Quaker may be a quite traditional Christian, another may be Unitarian. There are Quakers who identify as Moslems or Buddhists, others who practice Paganism or Zoroastrianism. And then there are the atheists, agnostics, and humanists who belong to the Religious Society of Friends.
When someone with a quite different orientation than our own speaks in meeting, there’s often a tendency to discount, even ignore, what that person says. But if we listen in tongues, we will do the hard work of trying to empathize with and understand the speaker. We will try to discern the ideas and emotions that lie behind the words. We will not let words become barriers between people who appear to be different but may in fact be rather similar in attitude.
So, if someone says, “Jesus is Lord,” we will not let the idea of a powerful, male lord so offend our sensibility as to close heart and mind. Perhaps we are both followers of Jesus. Even if we are humanists, we may appreciate the way of life advocated by Jesus. Or consider the person who is a “born-again Christian.” We may have had mystical or spiritual experiences that allow us to comprehend the feeling of being spiritually reborn.
Although listening in tongues may involve listening for large ideas, we are primarily listening for emotions and aspirations. If Christian, we may aspire to love others in much the same way as non-theists who advocate for social justice. We must listen for the love that lies behind the words. And sometimes the emotion behind words is fear. When we understand that Fundamentalist Christians are so literal minded because of fear, because of anxiety that changing a single belief will destroy one’s entire faith, we may feel less threatened by that aggressive version of Christianity.
In this divided country, listening in tongues may allow liberal-minded people to better understand hard-core supporters of Donald Trump. Behind their racism and intolerance is fear—fear that they will be displaced as African Americans and Hispanic immigrants take their jobs and undermine their way of life. With this understanding, we may be in a better place psychologically as we try to dialog with an intransigent group of people.
In the strictest sense, listening in tongues only means seeking to understand the other. When we try to re-frame what is said so that it fits better with our beliefs, we are doing something that goes beyond listening. So, for example, if someone tells us they are a “born-again” Christian, we may not accept the constellation of meanings that usually attach to the phrase. We may feel that, yes, we have been born again spiritually and then simply substitute our meaning of “born-again” for the “born-again” that implies biblical literalism and a faith in Jesus as one’s personal Savior. We may reframe a speaker’s words, so they are less threatening to our identity and worldview. We may be listening to protect our ego, not really to empathize with the other person.
Of course, listening in tongues (even if the phrase is unfamiliar) is essential to our meetings. Without this practice we would dissolve into dissension and fragmentation. That is, in fact, an unfortunate aspect of Quaker history—at least in America, where Quakers have splintered into many different groups. A hopeful development is that many meetings are now united either to Friends General Conference or Friends United Meeting. Many Monthly Meetings belong to both FGC and FUM. And the Friends World Committee for Consultation tries to communicate with all branches of Quakerism.
Robin Mohr, an executive secretary of FWCC, thinks of “listening in tongues” as a kind of bilingualism. For her take on the subject, click HERE.
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