There Are No Non-Negotiables

Update: On further reflection and conversation with some of the comments below (Matt, Andrew and Dom) I realized that the title of this post does not really reflect my intention nor the content of this post.  I wrote the title, before I wrote the post.  Goes to show how quickly I change my mind because by the end of the post I had evolved my thinking on it already.  In the end, non-negotiables are inevitable, so my hope with this post is to propose a new use for non-negotiables, not get rid of them all together.

Lately, at theStory, we are tackling the theology around the scriptures.  What are they?  What do they have to say to us?  How much authority should they have?  They are questions that need to be dealt with over and over again because every thing we deal with uses the Bible as a tool to help teach and understand.  It’s crucial that a community comes to agreement on what the Bible is, and how it is to be used within their community before teaching is ever done from it.  So this is what we are attempting to do.  Build a theology of the Bible.  This isn’t to put into stone what the Bible is absolutely (there has been enough Christians in history that have tried to do that already).  Rather it is simply making a decision that this is where we are coming from.  If someone disagrees on how we read the Bible, that is ok, but at some point we have to make a decision and explain what role the Bible has in our community.

I am not one for certain absolute statements of truth.  I don’t think we do a very good job at them so I tend to stray away from them and prefer to be taught and challenged by stories and dialogue.  However, at some point we all need to make a decision that this is what is going to happen or this is what we believe so we can move onto more things.  It isn’t to say we are absolutely right or that we will never change.  It is to say though that this is what we are agreed upon for now, so all conversation and dialogue can evolve to newer things.  If the conversation needs to come up again at a later time about what the Bible is and what role it should play, then that is fine and we will have that conversation.  We can’t live our entire lives skeptical of everything all the time or else we will never make any progress.  At some point we need to make decisions and just move on, acknowledging along the way that we could be wrong, unafraid to go back and give reason for our beliefs and still be challenged on them, but we are doing the best we can and avoiding being paralyzed by uncertainty.

Which leads me to the idea of “non-negotiables.”  This is a term that many use to explain things that they are unwilling to change their mind on.  Typically these things are beliefs about the resurrection, the atonement etc.  The creeds are normally considered non-negotiable.  Some people have more of them like sexuality, afterlife, environment and others have very little.  I take issue with the word non-negotiable.  It is basically saying the dialogue is over, you aren’t changing your mind so let’s talk about something else.  There is no longer room to grow, evolve or be challenged if you are unwilling to change or are unwilling to be open to change.  I would take the stance that no thing, ever, should be non-negotiable (and for all you philosophers out there, this statement is negotiable, leave a comment to negotiate).  I would argue though that only in the places where you are willing to negotiate, be challenged and admit that you could be wrong are the places that you will ever grow and evolve.  It is the paradox of dialogue.  You use logic, you make statements, you argue your points but there is always someone else in the conversation who is doing the same thing on the other side who is just as passionate as you are.  If you had a non-negotiable then it becomes a one sided conversation, you have stopped listening to the other person.  Who really cares what they are saying if you are unwilling to negotiate your own position.  Non-negotiables turn dialogues into monologues.  You end up giving instructions, using cliches and making generalized statements without having your facts challenged.

This isn’t to say that you cannot believe something and be shaped and formed by that thing.  This isn’t to say that you can’t have foundational beliefs that other beliefs grow from.  Isn’t this essentially what faith is?  You believe something that isn’t certain.  It isn’t necessarily impossible, and it could be probable or improbable, but it is not for certain or else it is no longer faith.  This is simply saying that when you choose to be unwilling to change your mind on something, you cease to grow in that area.

My issue is when non-negotiables are being forced on you by the opposing party.  If we must have non-negotiables, then they belong with people that agree with them, not against people that disagree with them.  If you and I are going to have a conversation about Jesus’ sermon on the mount and the implications it has for our lives then you and I must first have some sort of agreement and understanding on what are the previous assumptions that we both are allowed to have in the dialogue.  If/when we both can agree on certain presuppositions, then the conversation can progress.  This is where non-negotiables (if we must call them that) have their place.  They do not have a place when someone doesn’t agree on the non-negotiable.  They cannot be used as items of force or a stand-still in an argument, they should be used to benefit the dialogue and give it more freedom.  Non-negotiables are not there to protect beliefs so they don’t become tainted or to split the camp into two opposing parties.  They are there to give common ground, a foot to stand on and a reference point so the dialogue is fruitful between two people who already agree on what the non-negotiable is.

The creation of the creeds were to do this.  They were created to give Christians unity and direction to grow and evolve as a church.  However they were also used forcefully to kick people out of the church and create an us and them mentality, and this is where my problem lies.  Just because someone disagrees with your non-negotiables is not reason to kick someone out of a church, or your conversation.  Rather it just means you should be having a different conversation.  Seek to learn and be educated by the questions they have about your so called non-negotiables.  Be challenged.  Accept that you could be wrong and use it as an opportunity to become more honest in your faith but don’t use it as an attack weapon to make wild accusations that really have nothing to do with the topic.

Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other.
– Paulo Freire

8 Comments

  • Nathan,

    I’m a bit confused about how you would apply this. Specifically these two thoughts:

    “If you and I are going to have a conversation about Jesus’ sermon on the mount and the implications it has for our lives then you and I must first have some sort of agreement and understanding on what are the previous assumptions that we both are allowed to have in the dialogue. If/when we both can agree on certain presuppositions, then the conversation can progress…. They are there to give common ground, a foot to stand on and a reference point so the dialogue is fruitful between two people who already agree on what the non-negotiable is.”

    So, here non-negotiables are things the community in question has consented will be the necessary starting point for the dialogue in that community. Without them, you seem to say, dialogue will not be fruitful in the community.

    But then:

    “Just because someone disagrees with your non-negotiables is not reason to kick someone out of a church, or your conversation. Rather it just means you should be having a different conversation. ”

    The practical question I have here is this: what if someone in your community originally agrees to the “common ground, a foot to stand on and a reference point so the dialogue is fruitful”, but then later forcefully disagrees? (I could use the language of apostasy here.) It would seem that your first statement implies the wise thing to do would be to in some way make it clear they were no longer part of the community, so that they could be dialogued-with as an outsider, while your second statement seems to imply they should be kept in the community despite the fact that their presence will make dialogue unfruitful for everyone else.

    How would you fit these together?

  • Good question. Great question. Any more questions. :)

    I guess I would say that if someone cannot agree with the non-negotiables of a community then there is a point that will come when they are simply no longer part of the community. This isn’t something that would be forced necessarily (ie. ex-communicate) but simply something that is a reality. Then, because of the character of what a Christian community is, this community now exists to serve and love the person who is no longer part of them. Which would probably end up having a lot of meaningful conversations about those non-negotiables.

    I would like to think, that some of the non-negotiables of Christian communities would be to embrace, love and serve all, especially those that disagree with them. So I guess, that I would try to stand on both statements. 1. They are not part of the community and that is clear. 2. They should be embraced by the community, loved and served even if they attempt to bring in unfruitful conversation.

    Maybe it’s time for me to do some thinking on dialogue inside and/or outside of the community. They are obviously different, and not just within the Christian community, but probably any community of people that are agreed upon specific foundational truths, this is what makes a community.

  • I think, historically speaking this statement is tough to defend:
    “Non-negotiables are not there to protect beliefs so they don’t become tainted or to split the camp into two opposing parties. They are there to give common ground, a foot to stand on and a reference point so the dialogue is fruitful between two people who already agree on what the non-negotiable is.The creation of the creeds were to do this. They were created to give Christians unity and direction to grow and evolve as a church.”
    The creeds, specifically the Nicene and Chalcedonian creeds were meant as much to exclude faulty beliefs about the trinity and Christology as they were to unify the rest. In your terms, they decided on some non-negotiable elements, that you must believe or be excluded. Remember “Athanasius contra monde.”

    The problems seems to be that church in the past have been less that respectful when dialogging with divergent groups. I understand this issue, but I don’t think dialogue ceases if we disagree, even fundamentally, with one another. I am a firm believer that countering arguments and embracing people are not mutually exclusive. Can I not firmly believe something and discuss it ‘with love?’
    Finally you say nothing should ever be non-negotiable. Is not the resurrection non-negotiable? If Christ did not rise, should not theStory seize its function as a church?
    I wish to have as few non-negotiables as possible. I, do though, think we need some. Not just ones agreed upon by one small community, but ones the universal church can get behind.

  • Nathan,
    Thanks for your stimulating thoughts. It’s also great to see you wrestling through this tension. I’m looking forward to being with you and thestory this coming weekend. Some of the things i’ll be sharing pertain to the exact issues you mention. Looking forward to some great discussion.

    Bro, it seems that two key values are most important to you. I’ve narrowed them down in this way. First, ‘Discovery through Dialogue’. This, it seems, allows for the broadest inclusivity. Secondly, ‘New and developing knowledge concerning truth Statements’.

    Nathan, I’m assuming it’s clear to you that these are YOUR non-negotiables. In addition, it seems like your ecclesiology revolves very closely around these two non-negotiable. Having said that, I think that even a terse reading of the scriptures and available historical documents (i.e creeds, catechetical works, worship hymns and sermons,) will quickly reveal that your two non-negotiables were never at the heart of the Gospels nor are they at the core of God’s Kingdom. Now, I think that part of the tension that we all feel, or I hope we feel, is that we are called to LOVE. And it seems that you feel that your two non-negotiables provide the most all encompassing way of loving people that are different from each other. I understand this, yet unless we agree with embracing Jesus as the King of the Kingdom in a way that the Church has ‘universally’ affirmed with creedal consistency love loses its essential meaning. By this I mean, the Jesus we are commanded to love, gets lost in our own limited interpretations.

    Also, one thing I would suggest you rethink in a serious manner is your understanding of the creeds. You write, “The creation of the creeds were to do this. They were created to give Christians unity and direction to grow and evolve as a church” Nathan, this point is a grave fallacy historically. In addition, many Christian from diverse Christian traditions would agree that the Creeds are much more complex in their development and were not developed out of a haphazard attempt of bring unity.

    Looking forward to worshiping together my brother.

  • Wow, I got my smart theologian friends on here with this post. That means I either said something really right, or really wrong.

    Matt, I’ll respond to you in my response to Dom, since you both seem to bring up the same thing in one case.

    1. The Creeds – I am no historian, and I fully realize how the creeds were used to set heretics right and to exclude those who held non-orthodox views. From my understanding, many of them were also created because of existing heretical teachings. However, all that said, creeds at their heart are about unity and giving people some common ground in which they believe. Are they not? To say that the creeds are nothing but responses to heresy seems like it’s missing something. However, you are the historian in this conversation, not me. I probably shouldn’t have referred to the Creeds without knowing more. I’m obviously missing something since you both brought it up.

    2. Dom, I figured someone would bring up the fact that me arguing for non-negotiables is a non-negotiable. However, I mentioned in the post that my statements are negotiable. I for one am the last person that is going to argue for anything coming from the point of view of me being right. This is simply where my head is at right now and these are the conclusions I’m coming too. So this belief is not non-negotiable for me.

    3. The title of my post is a lot more non-negotiable than the post itself. By the end of my post I admit to needing non-negotiables for community and dialogue to happen. What I am more petitioning for is a new use of non-negotiables before I am actually throwing it out all together. I realize my title works against me, and that was my error I see now. But the words of my post are pushing people to use their non-negotiables between friendships to strengthen community and to take dialogue deeper as opposed to how they are commonly used; to draw lines in relationships, kick people out and exit out of real dialogue.

    4. You say that “yet unless we agree with embracing Jesus as the King of the Kingdom in a way that the Church has ‘universally’ affirmed with creedal consistency love loses its essential meaning.” I have a hard time with this statement. Paul seems to think that love gives everything else meaning (1 Cor 12). What you seem to be saying is that creedal consistency gives love meaning. I don’t understand how that can be? I have no problem with love, forgiveness, grace etc. being non-negotiables. They are the only things I feel in my life that truly are.

    Looking forward to Sunday too! I’m glad you are teaching on the creeds, I have a lot to learn.

  • Nathan, thanks for responding, but I think you ought to read my comments about the purpose of the creed again. Specifically “[the]creeds were meant as much to exclude faulty beliefs about the trinity and Christology as they were to unify the rest.”
    Thanks, Mat

  • So you are saying they are to do both unify and exclude faulty beliefs?

  • That is pretty much what I am saying. I think it is impossible to define something without excluding some and unifying others. Take a pathetic modern example like the Chicago statement of Hermeneutics. Everyone who signed it would be unified under a true definition of biblical interpretation. It at the same time excludes everyone who disagrees. Similar with the creeds. Nicaea does come from the emperors demand for unity, but his demand for unity is because ‘heretical’ beliefs are causing this strife. Even today, as churches write their belief statements, you cannot unify all and exclude none. What we can hope for is a diverse unity, like Paul pushes for in Corinth. This, though, is still built on the foundation of Christ (and him crucified).

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