Thinking Theologically: The Concept of Non-Negotiables

Royalty-free image via Unsplash.com. Attribution to Michael Hull.

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!

9 Comments

  1. Hi, I liked your post. It is always fun to see well thought out theological discussions pop up on pagan sites.

    1. Hi Rain! Thank you for taking the time to read my article, and I’m very happy that you liked it!

      I think I can say that there are many pagans who echo your sentiment: I hope that I can continue to offer a whetstone for fruitful theological discussions in the pagan community. There certainly needs to be more of it, and I will work hard to make sure it’s substantial and welcoming, yet probing. I look forward to more work done, and thank you for sharing your thoughts about the piece!

  2. This post has helped me so much my friend!!! You really do have a magic way with words. I am on my spiritual journey and the following quote hooked me: “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. ” You know how much I love science and math. This truly made it more vivid for me. Please continue posting your amazing blogs. Blessings upon blessings!!

    1. Vanessa, thank you so much!! I am honored that you read this, and I’m glad that it affected you deeply and vividly. I hope you’ll follow me on this blogging journey I’m doing on PaganBloggers, and as always you’re more than welcome to keep sharing your thoughts, comments, and suggestions. Much love and blessing to you!

  3. I’ve been wishing more people would talk about this, and open discussions on what those non-negotiables are. It would be useful for people starting out, because those core things may have more of a bearing on your success with a particular “path” than liking the mythology, art style, etc.
    Often I get the impression that people think there’s one polytheist religion made up of a series of boxes (God of War, Goddess of Love…) and the only difference is what gods you put in those boxes.

    1. Helmsinepu,

      I absolutely loved writing this article, and I am most happy that there was a need for this. I know just a little bit, compared to everyone else, but I hope that the Thinking Theologically series can help with discussions on theology in pagan circles. And I’ve gotten that feeling sometimes, too – that of the idea that polytheism is just one room and there’s just a bunch of boxes for you to pick from. It’s much, much more than that; I hope that I can write more posts that will strengthen our community and that will help in successful, fruitful, great conversations and discussions.

      Many blessings to you and Yours!

  4. Thank you for putting this so succinctly.

    I’m reminded of someone by the handle of Evid3nc3 on WordPress and YouTube illustrated their deconversion process (in a long, long series of YouTube videos) by having points of non-negotiability in a geometric shape, and how the points disappeared until they didn’t have a shape. It seemed to me to capture more a feeling of a loss of faith, however, with the blogger’s personal life experiences—another Christian even of the same denomination may well have a different shape and different non-negotiable points. The graphic certainly didn’t capture a changing of personal faith to secular life philosophy, I think it was purposefully pessimistic in that losing faith that deeply rooted wasn’t merely a change but a loss.

    I also feel very out of place in more vitriolic discussions of “forbidden personal gnosis” in general/online pagan spheres. I find a lot of conviction that anyone who claims to experience godhood are offending devotional polytheists with hubris and manipulating anyone who isn’t smart enough to be offended. A couple of non-negotiables there then seems to be 1. devotion to a specific but unspoken definition of god as hierarchical and 2. vast distance and distinctive barriers between the innate nature of mere mortals and the great gods.

    As an archetypalist and contrarian polytheist, I’m not going to get it. I had the privilege of attending a workshop based on the writings of Jean Shinoda-Bolen, where we rank a list of statements on a page from 1 to 5 depending on whether we agree it applies to us, and the number-crunching results tell us which god we most are. In this context, everyone is a balance of all the gods—one of the workshop facilitators even mentioned that if someone scored everything very low, they were likely to have a psychological depression. While the basic myths may have been from Ancient Greek, it wasn’t a context that recognized any hubris in mortals claiming godhood. It wasn’t even what I considered personal gnosis either—it was a pencil and paper exam with a scoring system, not what the ‘kins these days call awakening.

    And I’d read up a bit before on kumari, incarnations of the goddess Kali. From what I’d read this isn’t something someone decides for themselves, but their parents submit children for selection by the priests. There’s been long-established community structures for who qualifies, how to recognize, then what is verboten and what is expected from someone in that position.

    So when that’s casually pathologized by contemporary Western pagan discourse and dismissed as impossible and egotistic outright as a premise, I’ve got to wonder what the context even is that the very premise would be so disruptive. Maybe that specifically is another topic, but it came off to me a peculiar non-negotiable to occupy an odd estuary of discourse.

  5. Add this to the “Wow, there’s a word for that?” list. This reminds me of my own deconversion process from Christianity; I lost one non-negotiable after another (Satan, sin, hell, the soul, and then the flip side of a omni-good deity, salvation, and heaven) until I just couldn’t /be/ that anymore. It’s a shame because I also love theology and religious studies – I have a BA in Religion and actually wanted to be a professor of religion at one point – and I think I would have made a cracking good ELCA or MCC minister! Our non-negotiables just don’t match up anymore.

    My first response to most of your questions is “I don’t know” or “I haven’t really thought about that,” which means they’re the right questions to be asking. I’m a devotional polytheist myself with a call toward priesthood. So I suppose my non-negotiables are that Brighid is Real* (definition of Reality may vary based on fluctuations on the timespace continuum, not available in all locations), I can have a relationship with Her, and there are ways of acting and being in the world that fall more in line with the energy and goals She represents, which I should attempt to cultivate in myself to strengthen our relationship.

    This post was very accessible and helpful! I really look forward to other things you have to offer.

    Sage

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