07/15/2013 10:38 am ET Updated Sep 14, 2013

How to Be Good

In a recent conversation someone used the term "hating the sin, loving the sinner."

It appears to come from St Augustine's letters. At least the oldest usage seems to be a line he wrote, "Cum dilectione hominum et odio vitiorum," which I've read translates more or less as "With love for mankind and hatred of sins."

Its one of those lines that just run through the culture. I've used it myself.

But this time as I heard it I realized there's a problem with the use. It suggests there is some kind of sin floating out in the aethers, like a virus, waiting to attach to someone. It suggests something Platonic, an ideal form, or, in this case, perhaps, a less than ideal form that has a reality of its own.

Of course, there's no such thing as sin as an abstract reality. As a word it's sort of a hitch in the language, that is used to convey information, to connect things.

Sin, like everything else, exists only within action, within doing.

I'm not suggesting twisting our language in some way that eschews nouns in favor of verbs or variations on verbs. We need nouns. And they can be misleading. And here we get a particularly strong example of what's wrong with separating a person and what they do.

A sin is a moment, I would suggest, where an action is unwholesome, harmful.

Now, in that particular conversation the subject at hand was gay people. With that we also come up with an additional question of what is in fact harmful or unwholesome? As I see it there is nothing intrinsically wrong with homosexuality or its physical expression. Actually, let me step away from my inclination to hesitate in making categorical assertions. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with same sex attraction or its expression. Despite the weight of historical opprobrium, here we're encountering questions of purity rather than ethics. That is the condemnation of GLBT persons and actions has more to do with groups defining themselves with their list of what is other and therefore unclean. At various times for various people this list has included gay people, left handed and read headed people, and pretty much anyone not of "my" tribe.

What makes it even harder is when we get to things like sin, we're moving into religious territory, where pretty much everyone has a strong stake in what's what.

In fact in that same conversation about sin someone suggested that religious opprobrium of, say, homosexuals is not bigotry, but something else, protected from condemnation as simple bigotry might deserve. As it is religion it is therefore immune from judgement.

Of course, it is religious bigotry that is the most dangerous, because it claims divine sanction for its hateful actions. One need only read into the history of slavery in America to see where that leads.

Bigotry, like sin, like everything else, is found in the action.

Because, we are what we do.

I've heard people speak of someone who spent their life doing harmful things to other people, being excused with the line, "but at heart he really was a good person." Well, I don't think so.

We are what we do.

So, if we are what we do, and we have religious and social conventions that assert ill to things that seem to have no objective justification beyond that separating out sheep and goats that human beings, being herd animals at heart, like to do, how do we navigate a healthful path?

Something that actually is healthful.

I think it is pretty simple. Not easy, but simple enough.

First, be aware of our own hearts. We mainly can do this by taking time regularly to sit down, shut up, and pay attention. There are numerous variations on this, find the one that works for you.

The other is pay attention to our actions. They can be helpful to ourselves or others, they can be harmful in some manner to ourselves or to others, or they can have no particular effect one way or another. Over time, by paying attention to our actions, given the eyes to see through that sustained practice of sitting down, shutting up, and paying attention, we can modify our behaviors in ways that are more commonly neutral or helpful while lessening those actions that are harmful. Probably, I'm sad to report to those who like it pure, not eliminate, moderate.

Generally, I've noticed, we can best see clearly when we belong to a band that is dedicated to the same project. Finding that group should be a fairly high priority for those who really want to do more good than harm.

After that, well, as the sage said, we pays our money and we takes our chances.


The good heart will be known by what we do...