One of my favorite things to do – and one of the things that I believe is important to a stable faith life and a stable religious community – is theology. Thinking theologically is a profound thing; simple questions such as “what characterizes a human being?” or “what characterizes a God/Goddess/Spirit/Entity in my beliefs?” are often found to have thousands of years of answers, and ruminations of which continue to this day. I particularly find that theology is very much needed in the pagan communities.
One of the ends of thinking theologically is in understanding one’s religious and/or spiritual cosmology. It includes, for example, how that cosmology affects the mundane and the everyday. There are theologies that hold that there is no such division between the mundane and the spiritual; there are theologies that hold that there are boundaries between the mundane and the spiritual; and there are theologies that have a hundred other ideas about the relationship between the mundane and the spiritual; what breeds is conversation, development, dialogue, and tradition. Part of my writings here in my little nook at PaganBloggers will be explaining and posing theological questions in pagan contexts.
Of course, no two expressions of paganism (and even expressions of the expressions!) are the same. No two paganisms are the same, and so in the Thinking Theologically series, I will strive to pose questions that can be applied to all expressions of paganism. I write from a context of being a devotional polytheist who is highly interested in modern traditional witchcraft, so I’ll pose and explain theological questions through my experiences and beliefs as a devotional polytheist. The biggest takeaway that I desire from these kinds of articles, though, is for you, the reader, to think theologically in whatever expression of faith, belief, and/or practice that you have.
So now… just what is a non-negotiable?
To begin, I’d like to note that I learned about the concept of the non-negotiable in the wonderful (and exhaustively thorough) theological works of David H. Kelsey called Eccentric Existence: A Theological Anthropology. What he does in these two volumes is difficult to describe in just a tiny paragraph but, essentially, he applies important theological questions to what he calls a “Christian particularism.”
While he devotes his two-volume work to Christianity, the questions that are posed and the ways in which Kelsey probes at Christianity to find out its essential beliefs (what he calls “buoys” or “non-negotiables”) are questions that can be asked of any and all religions. Of course, as each religion is different and particular, there is a need to change the kinds of questions that are asked. For instance, were we to probe Christianity and Norse religion for how they shape a concept of right and wrong into their own cosmologies and contexts, and how their individual concepts of right and wrong were theologically articulated, we would get very different answers.
Christianity has a strong and deeply developed set of theological answers on sin, salvation, and redemption. For a Heathen (or a Norse pagan/polytheist), there is no such set of concepts; sin, salvation, and redemption are integral to Christianity and are part of what make the religion particular.
Heathens and Norse pagans/polytheists certainly have theologies of kinship, of wrong-doing and of maintaining peace and balance. Staying in frith with one’s group, family (kin), and Gods is essential to Norse pagan/polytheistic belief and practice. Violating someone or something through a wrong action would be also violating frith. These violations affect a person’s wyrd (as well as the wyrd of those who were entangled with the wrong-doing person). The balance being out of order, the priority becomes in restoring the balance – the system of weirguild is then put in place. By this means of reciprocity, balance is restored – one can live in frith once they have paid their dues, so to speak.
In these two examples, it is clear that two different religions articulate a similar idea in different ways because of their different contexts; and so, here, we’ve identified aspects of Christian particularisms (sin, salvation, redemption through Jesus Christ) and aspects of Norse particularisms (kinship, frith, wyrd, weirguild). All of these aspects are not just integral to the understanding of religion; they’re integral to understanding the theology of a religion as well. In short: sin, salvation, redemption, kinship, frith, wyrd, and weirguild are all, in a way, theological concepts. We’ve now identified things that make religions particular. But what does this mean?
So when we think about religion, we first think about what makes that religion particular. What makes a religion – and its theology – unique and distinct? What exactly makes that religion – and its theology – absolutely distinguishable from another? What are the cornerstones that, if removed from the base, would destroy the entire building? In short, a non-negotiable is a section of the foundation: an idea, a concept, a belief that is necessary to the well-being, identity, and structure of a religion. It is the thing that cannot be negotiated with under any circumstances, precisely because it is the most crucial, fundamental truth about what you believe and how you believe and act in it.
Let’s say that I was at an inter-faith discussion, and I was asked what my non-negotiables were. As a devotional polytheist, the first non-negotiable that comes to mind is my belief in a world full of many Gods. That is a non-negotiable because of my understanding of polytheism, which is the structure of what I believe in and how I see the world. In this structure, I am a hard polytheist: I understand the the Gods are separate and distinct, and They act with a powerful degree of agency in the world.
These specific beliefs of living Gods are not up for negotiation for me- that is, these are beliefs that define my religion and my practice in such a deeply unmovable way that I cannot understand my world and my religion, nor have any sort of conversation about my world and my religion, without them.
Every belief system has some sort of non-negotiable. For a Heathen, weirguild and frith can be considered non-negotiables. A non-negotiable for Kemeticism could be the importance of the existence and weight of ma’at that impacts one’s life and one’s decisions. A non-negotiable for Atheistic or Archetypal Paganism could be that Deities exist in the form of archetypes, and that these archetypes hold a wealth of knowledge and lessons that one can draw upon. A non-negotiable for a traditional witch could be that each plant and animal has a spirit, has knowledge, has sentience, and has power. A non-negotiable for an Ancestor worker would be in the belief and understanding that the Ancestors are present, “living,” active, and worthy of devotion, remembrance, and continued intimacy and engagement.
Now, I want to clarify something: this is not a theological vocabulary meant to breed any sort of vicious argumentation, which may be confusing to some due to the wording of “non-negotiable under any circumstances.” Every single religious and spiritual expression has at least one core truth to it. The core truth can be discussed, can be compared to another core truth, can be analyzed, can be criticized – but it cannot be removed if the belief system is to be wholly understood. Removing the non-negotiable truths of your beliefs is analogous to excising the heart of a human being – you remove the most important component, the most crucial of functions, the source of the lifeblood of your system. The body becomes a shell housing many very important organs that cannot function because the most important organ was removed. In inter-faith and intra-faith conversations, it’s healthy and important to understand everyone’s non-negotiables, not for the sake of argumentation (“my non-negotiable is better/more reasonable than yours”) but for the sake of both understanding and respecting the nexus (and the unique context) of one’s beliefs and practices.
It is also the case that religion – and people – can be as fluid as they can be stable. Over time, one’s understanding and engagement in their faith may change. Different priorities and conceptualizations may arise due to these changes, and so new non-negotiables may come to light. Concepts and beliefs that didn’t seem so important before, or that were important but not that important, may become non-negotiables.
In the Thinking Theologically series, again, my intent is to try to explain a theological concept, as best as I can and from my individual perspective, to present you the questions that should be thought about.
- What is a non-negotiable in your belief/practice?
- Do you have more than one non-negotiable? If so, what are they?
- Why are they non-negotiable?
- How does identifying the non-negotiable(s) in your belief/practice change or affect the way in which you understand yourself, your beliefs/practices, and/or your approach to others and their own beliefs/practices?
- Have you found that you don’t have a non-negotiable? If so, did the searching itself for a non-negotiable help you understand yourself, your beliefs, and your practices just a little more?
Of course, you’re more than welcome to write your responses, your ideas, your questions, your suggestions, and your (constructive) criticisms in the comments section! I’m excited to understand the many places and spaces that our communities come from, and in doing so, we come together in the same place and space. I’m also happy to clarify anything that was murky or just “huh?” for you.
I look forward to writing more of these kinds of articles here: but I can’t do it without my readers, so feel free to share, to comment, and to have conversations with me and with each other!