02 June 2006

Tongues of fire?

In Western Christianity, this Sunday is Pentecost Sunday. For those of you somewhat unfamiliar with the Christian calendar, this holiday celebrates the occurrence in the early Church wherein the Holy Spirit is reported to have descended on the gathered followers of Jesus like “tongues of fire”. According to certain gospel accounts, the post-resurrection Jesus promised his disciples that although he’d be leaving soon (ascending to heaven), they would receive this indwelling Holy Spirit, which in later Christian teachings became regarded as the third person of the Trinity (the others being “the Father” and “the Son”).

What happened on Pentecost, according to the record of the Book of Acts of the Apostles, was that the frightened disciples of Jesus, left alone after he went on up to heaven, were gathered together in a house when all of a sudden this wind blew through, and these tongues of fire descended on their heads, and they all started speaking in different languages – languages recognizable to the travelers of various nationalities gathered in Jerusalem at the time.

(An interestingly humorous and oft-overlooked side note: Some who heard this talk thought that perhaps the disciples were merely drunk. Peter, in their defense, said that they weren’t drunk, because it was only nine o’clock in the morning. Note that he didn’t say “Oh no, we’re good followers of Jesus, we’d never be drunk.” No, he merely argued that it was too early in the morning for them to be drunk yet. But I digress…)

Nowadays, Pentecostal and Charismatic Christians often practice this phenomenon of speaking in other languages or tongues, technically known as glossolalia. It is seen as a sign of the presence of the Holy Spirit in a particular believer – often concomitant with a special receiving or baptism of that same Spirit. It’s occasionally associated with ecstatic prayer, but also can be part of a quieter devotional practice.

That’s all fine, but here’s my rant on the current practice – and this can apply to a lot more than just glossolalia. The emphasis too often winds up being on the individual believer and the individual practice. Rather than looking at what one believer can or can’t do, or whether that believer or another is filled with a particularly holy or enlightened spirit, let’s focus instead on the oneness of the Spirit that’s supposedly doing all this indwelling. The point of the story about the early disciples of Jesus isn’t that they all had special language skills because of their special relationship with the divine spirit; rather, the point is that this spirit, working through them, was able to bring together an incredibly diverse crowd of folks from all nations by speaking to them in ways they all could understand.

If you’re thinking that I’m continuing with the theme of my last post – that whole underlying unity of the cosmos thing - you’re catching on. I also wanted to include a comment from my friend the Psych Pundit (you can find a link to his blog on the side of this page - although his schedule has precluded him from updating it as frequently as he’d like, it’s still quite a good read). PP noted in an email to me that my last post made him think of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Teilhard was a Jesuit priest, philosopher, and paleontologist who lived and worked in the first half of the 20th Century. He propagated such concepts as the noosphere, a sort of higher level of consciousness interconnecting all humans (or perhaps all sentient beings), and the Omega Point, a final unity toward which all creation is evolving together. PP’s comments, in essence, were that Teilhard stressed that our most profound interconnectedness will ultimately occur at this higher-order level of consciousness, as opposed to the lower-order level of quantum field constituent parts.

I think that the book I mentioned might agree with PP’s analysis and comparisons with Teilhard – perhaps it was only my clumsy rendering of those ideas that made it seem otherwise. When you think about it, Teilhard’s collective interconnected consciousness sounds a lot like various Buddhist concepts, all of which go back to this underlying unity of all things. Hey, if Jung can have a collective unconscious, why can’t we have a collective consciousness also?

Some folks have even posited the notion that the Internet is an early concrete step toward creating the noosphere. A really interesting aspect of this (well, interesting to me, at least) is that this evolution toward an Omega Point is at some level a conscious evolution, and that probably as we progress in this evolutionary process, it becomes more and more of a conscious process.

So are we yet at a point in human evolution when we can begin to evolve consciously? Can we start taking steps to evolve in ways that will be beneficial to all of humanity, to all sentient beings, to the entire planet, to all that is? One can only hope that we’re getting there. The alternatives don’t seem very appealing for our species.

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