HOW TO INHABIT TIME: Understanding the Past, Facing the Future, Living Faithfully Now. By James K. A. Smith. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2022. Xv + 189 pages.
We can argue about whether God exists outside time or not, but when it comes to us, we inhabit time. We have experienced the past, at least our own past. We know that there is a future ahead of us, even if we don’t know what it will entail. We may have our expectations and plans, but until they become our present experience things can change. So, with past and future framing our life experience, the question we face concerns how we might live faithfully in the present. As one who is trained as a historical theologian, I have a great appreciation for what has already transpired, for good or for bad. That past helps form the present. It also helps form the possibilities that lie ahead of us. In other words, history has great value because we are all part of the historical process.
When it comes to understanding the nature of time, James K. A. Smith’s book How to Inhabit Time is not only thought-provoking but clarifying. Smith, who teaches philosophy at Calvin University, speaks of time being a “spiritual adventure” (p. xiii). If it is an adventure, how do we experience it? Smith brings to this question his scholarly acumen as a philosopher. Smith has written about Augustine (On the Road with Saint Augustine), and that experience with Augustine informs this conversation. He is also a Reformed theologian, and that orientation is present in the book. His Reformed background and interest in Augustine might be problematic for some, but in the course of reading his books over the years, I have found him to be fair and open to different possibilities when it comes to the way we understand and experience God. In other words, this is not a hyper-Calvinist tract. To put it differently, although I believe that the future remains open (in my view God does not predetermine the future), I did not feel as if he wrote anything here that would shut down that conversation. That is because Smith invites us as readers to reflect and contemplate what it means to live in time. While the book is rooted in scholarship it is offered to a broad audience, which is fitting for a book under the Brazos imprint.
Smith seeks to address what he perceives to be a temporal disorientation present within Christianity. In his view, we seem unable to keep time, and thus we live in a temporal fog. He notes that “too many contemporary Christians look at history and see only a barren, textureless landscape.” We seem unable to “appreciate the nuances and dynamics of history.” Thus, we can’t discern the “when” of our existence. As a result, we don’t understand how the past influences and impacts both the present and the future (p. 5). That affects the way we read Scripture and live our lives as Christians. As an example, he points to the way some white Americans can’t discern why “All Lives Matter” is an inappropriate response to “Black Lives Matter.” Thus, the ideal— “all lives matter” —doesn’t take into account the reality present in the declaration that Black Lives Matter. Thus, this book is a call to address our distorted spiritual timekeeping by recognizing our embeddedness in history. Just to be clear, despite the title, this isn’t a book about time management!
Having established the importance of spiritual timekeeping in the introduction, Smith begins exploring the reality of being embedded in history. The first chapter reminds us that we are “Creatures of Time.” We live in time. Our existence is contingent. That is, what is might not have been, and what is could be otherwise. He writes that “history is the zig and zag of choices and events that both open and close possibilities” (p. 31). In other words, we can’t go back to the past. The past has already been written, and the choices made in the past affect the possibilities going forward. So, we move forward into time, with the Spirit present with us. We move on in chapter 2 to “A History of the Human Heart,” Smith speaks more fully about the nature of potentiality. He notes that the possibilities available in the future are not infinite. Again, the past and present influence the potentialities of the future. Regarding the past, he speaks of grace overcoming what has happened but not erasing it or undoing it. He writes that “to be human is to be the product of a history that should have been otherwise: that’s what it means to live in a world off-kilter due to sin and evil. ” That history is who I am. (p. 67).
In “The Sacred folds of Kairos” (chapter 3), Smith speaks to the reality of the present, where history and eternity intersect. In this chapter, he draws on Kierkegaard and speaks of what it means to be a follower of God. It is not enough to be present with Jesus in his own time and place; the question for us is how we follow Jesus in the present moment. He reminds us that time is not merely a straight line, but in terms of kairos, it “bends and curves around the incarnate Christ like a temporal center of gravity.” This reality is reflected in the nature of the liturgical calendar (p. 85). Moving on to chapter 4, he speaks about embracing the ephemeral or loving what we’ll lose. In this chapter, Smith writes that “Christian timekeeping is like a dance on a tightrope: on the one hand, we are called to inhabit time in a way that stretches us, to be aware of so much more than now.” Here he speaks of living “futurally” so that we remain aware of our inheritances. On the other hand, he reminds us that “we always live in the present” (p. 100). The question for us is how we live in the present as the nexus of the past and the future. Here is a reminder that we live with the ephemeral, that which fades away with time. As Ecclesiastes suggests, all is vanity. Everything that exists is impermanent so time inevitably involves change.
In chapter 5 we learn that we inhabit the now as we encounter the “Seasons of the Heart.” As Ecclesiastes reminds us, there is a time for everything. There are seasons of inevitability and seasons that involve choices. In our journey, this reality of changing seasons requires discernment. That is, discernment involves recognizing our seasonal location. Discernment involves prayerful listening while we live in the midst of things. Smith suggests that if we wish to transcend time then we should develop multi-generational friendships. Here he notes that “there are patterns of a human life that, despite our claims to utter uniqueness, are in fact repeated and shared” (p. 134). When it comes to our relationship with God, though God might be eternal we are seasonal. In other words, our relationship with God is marked by seasonality. We experience God differently in different moments.
The Christian life is a spiritual adventure that involves different seasons. We may be moving toward the future, but Smith suggests we shouldn’t live ahead of time (chapter 6). We should not get ahead of ourselves. We can imagine many things, but it is experience that tells us what is possible. These are the constraints of our creaturehood. Here he reflects on eschatological matters, and more pointedly on what he calls “practical eschatology.” Because we as Christians are futural people, we pray for the coming of God’s kingdom. But even as we pray for it to come, we know that it has yet to come. That means we are a “waiting people.” So, we should not rush the kingdom. So, “living eschatologically is not so much a matter of knowing the end as knowing when we are now. An eschatological orientation isn’t only about a future expectation but also a recalibration of our present” (p. 148-149). That doesn’t mean we wait passively or “fetishize an atemporal eternity” (p. 149). In other words, we should not neglect the present by expecting the future. Thus, “eschatology is about how we live in the now, and that ‘we’ is as wide as humanity, even if we’re not all keeping time in the same way” (p. 155). Thus, eschatology is political. It is also a call to live without hubris.
As I read Smith’s How to Inhabit Time, I found it to be a very helpful reflection on the nature of time. As I pointed out at the beginning of the review, the issue here is not whether God exists within or outside time. The issue is how we experience time. I often hear people talking about living in the present as if the past and future do not affect present reality. Smith reminds us that the choices made in the past have implications for how we experience the present. The choices we make in the present influence the future, which has political implications. In other words, history is more than an interesting avocation for those who enjoy watching the History Channel. The past and the present will influence what the future looks like, whether we like it or not! The good news, offered by Smith in How to Inhabit Time is divine grace allows us to overcome the realities of the past even if we can’t erase that past. In other words, the good news is that God makes all things new.
Robert D. Cornwall is an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Now retired from his ministry at Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Troy, Michigan, he serves as Minister-at-Large in Troy. He holds a Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary and is the author of numerous books including his latest books: Called to Bless: Finding Hope by Reclaiming Our Spiritual Roots (Cascade Books, 2021) and Unfettered Spirit: Spiritual Gifts for the New Great Awakening, 2nd Edition, (Energion Publications, 2021). His blog Ponderings on a Faith Journey can be found at www.bobcornwall.com.