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How to Inhabit Time: Understanding the Past, Facing the Future, Living Faithfully Now

James K. A. Smith
Published by Brazos Press in 2022

As the title makes plain, this is a how-to guide: how to inhabit time. But we already inhabit time. “Human beings dwell temporally,” Smith tells us (27). So, what is there to learn? The answer arises from reflection on the fact that our being in time, our temporality—despite constituting our essence as human beings—is often felt to be a hindrance to the sort of lives we’d like to live. Paralyzing nostalgia or regret about the past, restlessness or complacency in the present, anxiety about the future, the fear of death; these are all common human experiences, and they are experiences which keep us from living well. In short, despite always being in time, we are not good at it. So, we should welcome guidance about how better to relate to time—past, present, future.

But which time? Or whose time? Is time more like a circle, eternally recurring upon itself, or more like a line, headed toward an eschaton? Christian time is not quite either, according to Smith, though it preserves and unites elements of both. On the one hand, Christians work and wait in hope for a final end. On the other hand, life is lived in seasons, the liturgical and solar calendars bringing us back year after year to what we had the year before. But then again, the incarnation of God in Christ has made time itself a mediator between us and eternity, each moment of our lives is endowed with potency for experience richer than could be guessed from its place in a linear temporal progression. God’s time is neither strictly linear nor strictly circular, because each moment is thick, folding together the past, the future, and eternity.

Our temporality is God’s time, but of course we struggle to live as though it is. So, the book offers reflections on our past, present, and future, to “attune” us to God’s time (xiv), weaving the author’s personal experiences together with meditations on diverse topics such as art, agriculture, and the history of time-keeping, along with discussion of philosophers and theologians such as Augustine, Kierkegaard, and Heidegger. In the first two chapters Smith reflects on the past. The third, fourth, and fifth chapters reflect on the present. The sixth and final chapter reflects on the future.

The book is not discursive; Smith invites us to “dwell” in the book rather than “learn” from it (xiv). It is “an impressionistic painting of sorts” (xv). It is a “spiritual exercise” rather than a theological treatise (xv). Chapters are broken down into sections, some of which are not narratively or logically connected to their neighbors. It is not a book of aphorisms, but the chapter sections sometimes have an aphoristic feel about them. It is good reading for private meditation, a good supplement to readers’ daily devotional practices. The impressionistic nature of How to Inhabit Time defies the academic reviewer’s attempts to explicate and evaluate the book. There is not much by way of argument here; instead, the book is a patchwork of wise reflections, some quite beautiful, such as the section on El Greco’s The Burial of the Count of Orgaz (75–77), or the meditation on a vase of fading roses through which the author sees both “a wedding dress and a grace. A beginning and an end” (25).

We are forgetful creatures, and the introduction and chapter 1 invite us to “face our forgetting” (25), recognizing the ways in which our past—individually and collectively—shapes who we are. To inhabit time well, we need to confront our past, to learn how it shapes our present and conditions how we ought to act here and now. It might be a timeless principle that “all lives matter” (7), but when the nation is reeling from the brutal treatment of a black man by a white cop, then prudence might suggest, especially in light of our country’s long history of racially motivated injustice, that now is not the time to sloganeer with that particular slogan, however true it may be.

Some things we have no trouble at all forgetting. Chapter 2 bids us to confront our “ghosts.” Shame about past wrongs inflicted or suffered, nostalgia about past goods enjoyed, stymie both our own sense of agency and the work of God’s grace. Your genuine options here and now are in some real way a product of your past, not only your past choices but also those aspects of your past outside your control. But the way the past constrains your present is not set in stone: it is like concrete set up in a mold but not fully cured. Confronting our past and living well in light of it, then, involves both a recognition of the redemptive, transformative power of God’s grace, and also our own agency. Our past shapes but does not determine us.

In chapter 3 we turn to the present. But in God’s time the present is not merely “contemporary,” because the incarnation has “folded” time (77). Old religious paintings depict monks or aristocrats at the foot of the cross. A trivial complaint about such images is that they are anachronistic. And perhaps they are. But there is a familiar distinction between mere chronos—temporal sequence, from which we derive our word “anachronistic”—and kairos—the appointed time. In Christian theological lore, and in Smith’s own reflections, kairos has become an important theological concept which yields a way of conceiving the present moment as potentially an encounter with eternity. In God’s time we do not wholly lose the past when it is past: in God’s eternity, manifest to us through the historical incarnation, the past and present meet together, uniting the saints into a true communion across time.

And yet, chapter 4 reminds us, so much of what we experience, however well-attuned we are to God’s time, is ephemeral. Some of these ephemera we are happy to lose: the quick prick of a needle, the soporific committee meeting. But others so often feel too fleeting: those perfect days at the end of summer when the heat has broken, your son’s joyful welcome-home hug after a day’s work, the fresh flowers in a vase on your desk. These good things naturally come to an end, and it is easy to be wistful about them, even if we acknowledge at some level that they are not meant to last forever. But there is of course a darker side to ephemera: some things, never meant to last forever, are nevertheless lost before their time. These tragedies, minor or major, make it hard for us to recognize that ephemerality itself is not an evil. But it is not some fundamental flaw in the universe that some of its good things are not meant to last forever. We live in a fallen world, Smith reminds us, and therefore so many things don’t turn out as they should. But this fact of fallenness should not blind us to the fact that ephemerality is part of the original fabric of the world.

Time, even God’s time, comes in seasons. Literally speaking, the solar year is doled out to us in four seasons. But aside from these cyclical seasons, chapter 5 teaches us, human life is seasonal: there is the season for learning and for teaching, the season for raising children, the season of caring for aged parents, the season for professional productivity but also rest and receptivity, and so on. To live in God’s time, we must recognize that time is not a mere line, one thing after another, but seasonal. Wise discernment about the good way to live here and now requires recognizing the seasonality of life. We cannot have all the goods of life all at once; there is a time for this and a time for that.

But the final chapter bids us reflect that the seasons of this world are passing away. It is ineliminable from a Christian conception of time that we are headed somewhere new. There is the promised end where everything will be made right. From the beginning of Christian times this promise has generated a profound tension in the Christian life: on the one hand, God will take care of everything in the end; on the other hand, in the meantime (and we have no idea how long that will be) we are to act in the world as though our actions really mattered for bringing that end about. It is easy to release this tension by erring in one of two ways: to neglect our duty as disciples to proclaim the gospel, leaving it all to God; or to shoulder all the burden ourselves, as though our own actions could be sufficient to realize heaven on earth. But we need to live in the tension. Doing so requires us to act assiduously for the good, while recognizing that we are not capable of bringing about the promised end of all things. Living in this tension keeps us from living “ahead of time,” that is, living as though fixing all the brokenness in the world is only up to us and, since we are not capable of doing this, adopting an attitude of apathy or anxiety or fear. Reflecting on Marilynne Robinson’s exhortation that “fear is not a Christian habit of mind,” Smith writes, “That is not to condone apathy but rather to encourage hope, a way of laboring toward a future that arrives as a gift” (170). Maranatha!

Thomas M. Ward

Baylor University
Thomas M. Ward, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Baylor University