The Apostle Paul wrote, “Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on.”
Step one, forgetting. Step two straining forward. That is how we think. What if there is only one step in pressing on? The “and” implies two. It is the additive conjunction, right? You can’t have one thing, when “and” is present.
The 20th-century Quaker theologian Elton Trueblood once called and the “holy conjunction.” He emphasized this in important subjects like Christ’s humanity and divinity, roots and fruits, the inner life of devotion and the outer life of service.
He pointed to Jesus’ statements regarding the great commandments: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ … And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Matthew 22:37-39).
But the late M. Scott Peck, a psychiatrist and best-selling author who wrote a lot about religious themes, took the idea of a holy conjunction further. He argued that the ability to integrate faith and reason into our lives is part of what constitutes integrity. “Instead of an either/or style of mentation, we are pushing for both/and thinking. We are not trying to get rid of reason but promote ‘reason plus.’ Reason and mystery. Reason and emotion. Reason and intuition. Reason and revelation. Reason and wisdom. Reason and love.”
Peck goes on to say that the holy conjunction allows us to envision a world where a business can make a profit and be ethical, where government can promote political order and social justice, where medicine can be practiced with technological proficiency and compassion, where children can be taught science and religion.
Today, the holy conjunction is more necessary than ever, allowing one to be politically conservative and advocate social justice or where one can be politically liberal and promote personal responsibility. “The holy conjunction is the conjunction of integrity,” Peck says.
The point is that forgetting and looking forward can be considered one action. That seems like a glaring contradiction. How can you forget and look forward at the same time?
Parker J. Palmer, who writes on spirituality, says that more than once he “despaired at the corrosive effect” upon his spiritual life of his contradictions. He explains, “I had thought that living spiritually required a resolution of all contraries and tensions before one could hope, as it were, to earn one’s wings.” But he says that as he labored to remove these contradictions before presenting himself to God, his spiritual life “became a continual preliminary attraction, never quite getting to the main event.”
Palmer eventually realized he had to become less focused on the contradictions in his life and more focused on what God wanted him to learn. “Perhaps,” he concluded, “contradictions are not impediments to the spiritual life, but an integral part of it. Through them we may learn that the power for life comes from God, not from us.” This makes the grace of God “a gift to all of us whose lives are pulled between the poles.”
And to that point, Palmer quotes the Trappist monk and author Thomas Merton, who said, “I have become convinced that the very contradictions in my life are in some ways signs of God’s mercy to me; if only because someone so complicated and so prone to confusion and self-defeat could hardly survive for long without special mercy.”