Pixie Dust Sh_t

On Divergent Norms

Smoke trailed from the cigarette that dangled from Seamus’s fingers. Our crew sat on the slope of the hillside, buried in the wild grass. The drop bag, filled with seismic equipment, sat off to the left. It was a sunny day in the mountains near Grande Cache, where for a short time in my life, the morning consisted of cream cheese bagels, safety meetings, and helicopter rides.

Seamus was an Irishman. He was largely shameless, unabashedly dirty-minded, and full of stories that were far from my own life experience. At his previous job, he had defecated in the boot of a friend (who didn’t notice until he had put the boot on) simply for amusement. He had escaped from prison, been sent back to prison, been pepper-sprayed multiple times, and gotten a beating from Owen Hart in an alley behind a bar.

Seamus knew that the three of us, who had come out there together, were Christian. It was the subject of numerous jokes. He and his longtime friend Jason repeatedly tried to offer us some of their high-quality pot, which they were certain we would eventually take, and which we always declined. For the most part, this was a subplot that occasionally infiltrated our daily conversations. It was only that day, on the hill, that we really discussed it.

Despite his apparent affinity for debauchery, Seamus was self-aware. He understood a great deal about life. As for his religious background, he had been raised as a Catholic in Ireland. He told us that on one occasion the priest had seen him look over at his sister and nudge her during the service. In order to recapture his attention, the priest had immediately marched up the aisle and punched him in the face.

When we talked about the church, Seamus shook his head.

“I came from a country that was in the middle of a holy war,” he said. “Not this pixie dust sh_t you’ve got going on here.”

It was a statement I would not forget. It was true; my experience with church had nothing to do with fists and priests. It had everything to do with being nice and censoring expletives.

Inasmuch as we have access to the truth, we have limited access to the truth. Inasmuch as Christians agree on the truth we claim to have access to, we still allow for only so many differences before we fragment into sects and denominations. How many of these differences have to do with truth, I cannot say. But what Seamus had drawn my attention to was the alarming amount of subculture that has become undistinguishable from religion; the frightening possibility (for evangelicals) that being especially polite was no more essential to Christianity than punching children on a Sunday morning.

This brings two concerns to my mind. The first is that we may find it difficult to properly assess people who have similar beliefs, but come from different backgrounds.  It is commonly said that God’s dealings with mankind are subject to change, whereas God himself is not. One must wonder, however, about our dealings with ourselves. The norms of conduct in other faith traditions and cultures are so divergent, at times, that it may be difficult to find a common denominator. Yet we can learn something from other faith traditions. It is permissible to criticize behaviours and norms that are heavily ingrained in other cultures, but it is not necessary—once this is recognized—to do so indiscriminately. I write this because it seems, to me, that many people fear a slippery slope when accepting (or criticizing) such differences.

The second concern is, of course, that people may become convinced that the subculture surrounding their particular faith tradition is the essence of the faith itself. The problem here is not (as one might assume) the unwarranted criticism that you will heap on people who “do things differently.” The problem is that you will waste a great deal of your life working on the decorations and trimmings of a faith that you don’t even have.

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