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