Every once in a while, someone who doesn’t profess Christianity will stumble upon some sort of natural or moral law that Christians have professed for centuries. To avoid agreeing with the Bible, or maybe because they legitimately think they’ve discovered something new, they’ll often give the old idea a cool new re-brand.
Case in point is a new piece at the edgy news-and-culture outfit Vice. The author reports on a brand-new type of progressive relationship structure: “radical monogamy.” Not to be confused with the “boring, old, religious, traditional” kind of monogamy, “radical monogamy” is an exclusive relationship commitment that’s chosen, not blindly accepted. And, this is crucial to the distinction: Monogamy that is “radical” is chosen from among the many equally valid relationship options, including polyamory.
On one hand, it’s not surprising that even those who wish to remain “sexually open minded,” but still want to enjoy the best relationships possible, would land on monogamy. After all, as my old Tennessee friend would say, “it ain’t rocket science.” Research routinely shows that exclusive relationships, especially marriage, yield higher rates of general satisfaction, sexual satisfaction, and healthier kids.
Still, according to this Vice essay, proponents of radical monogamy stress that the decision to remain in an exclusive relationship was made by themselves, and for themselves.
Of course, no one wants to be bamboozled, especially by someone else’s morality or long-standing tradition. It’s wise not to blindly accept social pronouncements or even moral and ostensibly religious arguments. Jesus often authenticated His pronouncements by alluding to or directly referencing the Old Testament.
At the same time, it’s quite foolish to rely only on our own minds or desires. And, to suggest that everyone who chose monogamy before now, including generations of stable couples who’d profess having wonderful lives together, either did it blindly or for the wrong reasons, is a profound act of what C.S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery.”
The worst part of “radical monogamy” is to suggest it’s only valid if it’s what I want, rather than because it is morally superior. What if your relationship partner also wants and deserves your exclusive commitment? What if it is the best context in order for kids to be safe and healthy? Is monogamy only “radical” if the well-being of others is not considered?
An irony in all of this is that selfishness is about as mundane as it gets. “Me first” has been the same tired refrain of the sexual revolution for almost 50 years now. And it’s a shame. After all, self-interested monogamy won’t keep couples together any longer or make anyone any happier than any other sexually disordered relationship.
Monogamy works precisely because it’s a commitment to another because it says “I’ll stay here even when” without knowing what is coming next. In that sense, no one enters into committed monogamy—or any commitment—with eyes wide open.
So-called “radical monogamy” reflects a culture that tends to think of freedom only as freedom from any and all restraint. If free people are to choose monogamy, they have to consider, or maybe even try, every possible alternative. But life doesn’t work like that.
Christianity accepts that our lives are limited in both physical and non-physical ways: by things like the immovable reality of our bodies, by geography, and by moral laws. Human limits, including the moral limits of monogamy, narrow our relationship choices in ways that are more gifts than locked doors. Our limitations enable the freedom for something: the freedom to be truly human.
A few years ago, a spokesmen for the media platform Second Life told journalist Leslie Jamison that users on their virtual reality platform would often become paralyzed by what was called the “white space problem.” Apparently, the ability to build an entire virtual life from scratch, with limitless possibilities stretching in all directions, was too overwhelming. Too much white space isn’t freeing; it’s painful. Committed monogamy may limit our relational “white space,” but when marked by real commitment and self-sacrifice, it’s still the most fulfilling relationship option on offer, whether we call it “radical” or not.
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