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What's so wrong with adultery?

In The Times today Alain de Botton has a piece that is provocatively advertised which is a trailer for his next book "How to think more about sex".

Can the reader think differently about adultery? De Botton argues that part of our problem with adultery and with marriage is a belief in idealism. We think marriage is easy and that adultery will counteract the challenges.

He's not making moral statements about adultery being right or wrong; he's saying people get adultery 'wrong' if they think it can 'fix' the obvious and inevitably difficulties of marriage. Which could be said of all "sin" - we follow our hearts but outside of Christ on the promise of joy, but there is futility, frustration, emptiness...


I find Alain de Botton fascinating. I've recently enjoyed his book Religion for Atheists and his Channel 4 series on Happiness and Architecture.

He feels like a non-Christian liberal churchman, in that he argues that todays atheists should obviously not believe in God but should embrace the models of community and education and kindness that religions offer. Where Richard Dawkins sounds like an angry Anglican atheist, wanting a moral existence but still bearing a grudge against the house that formed him, still perhaps secretly believing that god might burn him for his insolence... Alain de Botton is more relaxed. He reads like a happy man pusuing happiness, an honest thief who happily steals the church's silver, at peace with his atheism. If the only option with Dawkins is to unsuccessfully invite him to debate, with de Botton I can imagine a dialogue, a polite conversation over a glass of fine wine... in which I'd probably leave feeling a little patronised but also helpfully provoked.

On marriage, de Botton says "there is no answer to the tensions of marriage if by answer we mean a settlement in which no party suffers a loss". Beyond a little realism and tolerance he doesn't really have much of an answer. The Christian says, of course marriage is a fight, and one in which without Christ it's hard to survive...  there is always "a loss" or a cost.

Love worth having always costs someone. Life follows death.

My wife and I recently spent a weekend away with a dozen couples from our family of churches, all of us in leadership in our churches, getting support to grow in our marriages. Some friends asked: are you struggling? Shocked that we'd gladly seek help. We're always struggling, always wanting help to grow together.

Marriage is two important to not invest in.

Of infidelity de Botton comments "if one partner should happen to slip, the other might forgo fury in favour of a certain bemused amazement". As a general principle of grace and forgiveness in a relationship that's helpful, though adultery is more than just a "slip", which I think he does recognise earlier in the article.

Personally and honestly, approaching our 10th wedding anniversary this summer, I think our marriage is in better health than its ever been, better as we grow older, better as we grow in Christ, which brings both growth in self-giving, humility, generosity... and I thank God that by the grace of God, with much bickering, argument and stubbornness (along with countless priceless moments) we've made it this far!

De Botton asks "Is monogamy an impossible ideal?" Yes and no.

Alain has a slightly pessimistic hopefulness saying "spouses who remain faithful to each other should recognise the scale of the sacrifice they are making for their love and for their children... fidelity deserves to be praised - ideally with some medals and the sounding of a public gong - rather than discounted as an unremarkable norm."

The whole story of the Bible demonstrates that humanity failed to be monogamous with our loving maker, and the same corruption marks our relationships with one another to varying degrees.

We think we'll be happy elsewhere, but its a lie. There is one who truly loves, who is always faithful and his love is poured out for those who are utterly unfaithful. The ideal, that for which we have an inconsolable longing is... well, beyond our grasp but has come to grasp hold of us at the very greatest cost.

 Hear Alain de Botton in Bristol on May 16th  
Alain de Botton: How to think more about sex

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