Friday, August 30, 2013

The multiplicity of tongues

This post was inspired after a talk I had with Fr. William Taylor, Chairman of the Anglican and Eastern Churches Association. The theological conversation was based on why God allowed for the birth of all the languages in the world. Could we have only one language?
The answer is a complex one. The birth of all the languages is to be found in Genesis 11: 1-9, where we read: ‘And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech. And it came to pass, as they journeyed from east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there. And they said one to another, Go to, let us make brick, and burn them throughly. And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face to the whole earth. And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded. And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do. Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech. So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city. Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the Lord scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth’.

However, during Pentecost we see the reverse of the above. The gift of unity is given by the Holy Spirit, where we read, ‘They were all in one accord in one place’ (Acts 2:1). Therefore, during Pentecost we chant the following hymn: ‘When the Most High came down and confused the tongues, He divided the nations; But when he distributed tongues of fire, He called all to unity. Therefore with one voice we glorify the All –Holy Spirit.
Metropolitan Kallistos explains, in regards to this important subject, that “The Spirit brings unity and mutual comprehension, enabling us to speak ‘with one voice’. He transforms individuals into persons. Of the first Christian community at Jerusalem, in the period immediately following Pentecost, it is stated that they ‘had all things in common’ and were ‘united in heart and soul (Acts 2:44, 4:32); and this should be the mark of the Pentecostal community of the Church in every age…Not only does the Holy Spirit make us all one, but he makes us each different. At Pentecost the multiplicity of tongues was not abolished, but it ceased to be a cause of separation; each spoke as before in his own tongue, but by the power of the Spirit each could understand the others”[1].
Interpretation is key here. We understand the existence of multiple languages, which could divide people. However, we can also perceive that all the languages together can better explain the mystery of our existence, explain theology and maybe God, in a better manner, than could be achieved with only one language. Despite having a multiplicity of tongues, we can identify the fact that the Holy Spirit does unite all faithful, within the body of the Church.

[1]Ware, Kallistos, The Orthodox Way, (New York, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1995), p. 95

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