Monday, January 26, 2015

Monogamy in a Plural Society

John I. Cline, The Monogamy Mystery: Natural/Unnatural?

Sometimes it feels, in this age of presidential infidelities and quickie celebrity divorces, that monogamy has become another outdated cultural vestige. Public figures, even spiritual leaders and beloved teachers, make and break marriages with manic haste. Yet humans continue longing for meaningful bonds with other humans, bonds we contend should last throughout mortal life or beyond. How do we achieve where so many have failed? How can we reconcile lofty goals with common human frailties?

Bishop John Cline, a Baptist minister from the British Virgin Islands, has wrestled with these issues throughout his career. Unsurprisingly from a Christian clergyman, his considerations come from the Bible and religious tradition; but also biology, sociology, history, and current events. He guides readers through difficult, sometimes contradictory reasoning pathways, ever mindful that, for most people, issues of fidelity, forgiveness, and union aren’t mere academic discussions or philosophical premises. They reflect our dangerous everyday lives.

Cline’s answers might strike many Christians as unorthodox. His examination of changing mores through history, and meanings of key Greek scriptural terms, means many principles my generation grew up hearing repeated constantly, aren’t really biblical. Cline encourages thinking Christians seeking monogamous fidelity to separate legitimate ethical foundations from mere learned customs. This isn’t easy. Cline’s long, sometimes convoluted reasoning, reminiscent of Aristotle, provides a model for serious, intellectually engaged debate between habits and timeless truths.

Bishop John I. Cline
Quoting science, Cline admits monogamy runs against apparent human nature. Mammals generally aren’t biologically cued for lifelong fidelity. We know from experience, however, that social experiments throwing monogamous bonds overboard haven’t produced happier societies or greater prosperity. Since humans uniquely build societies designed to persist beyond the changing seasons, we have singular responsibilities to build social structures based on trust and loyalty. This often pits our biological drives against what our brains recognize as true.

To paraphrase and oversimplify, Bishop Cline encourages readers to perceive marriage as a process, not a state of being; not that we are married, but we pursue our marriage through life’s stages. This means understanding our own identities, rather than grabbing fleeting emotional highs. It also means understanding the real foundations of durable relationships, rather than what romantic comedies and paperback potboilers offer. Real relationships, Cline says, are both subtle and frequently less than obvious.

Too often, people get married for reasons unable to sustain lifelong commitment. Cline lists several “rules of engagement” to help readers ensure they’re getting married for the right reason. Rules include: “Marriage was not designed to make you happy,” “Aspire to achieve the God standard for marriage,” and my personal favorite, “Do not fall ‘in love.’ Understand it!” These rules contradict what we’ve learned in countless Top-40 songs, but they encourage a mindful marriage.

Also, when infidelity happens—as, for many couples, it almost inevitably will—they need concrete plans for getting around it and reconstructing their relationship. Cline isn’t sentimental or misty-eyed about ideal marriages. His pastoral career has involved counseling collapsing relationships, and he’s studied marriages through good times and bad. He’s surveyed parishioners, perhaps not altogether scientifically, and understands our beliefs often don’t match our actions. Therefore, he says it’s necessary to plan for awful eventualities.

Infidelity isn’t easy; Cline admits sometimes separation is best. Even Jesus left infidelity as the exception in his divorce ban. But for couples determined to persevere, he counsels certain traits, like honesty, friendship, and repentance. These attitudes, like monogamy itself, aren’t natural to humans; we generally dissemble, bear grudges, and act defensive. But Cline, like countless theologians and social scientists before himself, calls striving families to aspire to something higher, something truer than their feelings.

I especially appreciate Cline’s concluding remarks dedicated to the young. Christian leaders often inculcate youth with traditions inherited from Western culture, often without firm religious or scientific foundation. Cline, by contrast, uses plain English to evaluate the difference between sex and relationship, between near-term satisfaction and long-term growth, and between real and false respect. We all desire relationships, whether romantic, platonic, or spiritual, and when youth’s feelings run high, guidance in finding relationship is priceless.

Today’s frantic, high-pressure culture encourages ordinary people to take a passive attitude toward their relationships. This often results in early burnout, tragic indiscretions, and painful splits. Bishop Cline’s book, sophisticated but not long, provides tools necessary to resist such passivity. He helps eager singles construct meaningful relationships, busy marrieds sustain what they’ve built, and grieving survivors heal the wounds of betrayal. He doesn’t offer to make tough situations easy. Sometimes, difficulty is its own reward.


  1. Does The Rev. Cline assume that marriage is the only legitimate state for humans? I wonder if the book assumes that being single is not an option or if it simply addresses itself to the people who choose to be mated rather than single.

  2. He makes no such assumption. Indeed, he makes sophisticated arguments why restrictive sexual ethics don't apply in the current cultural milieu.