Book recommended: How to Inhabit Time (James K. A. Smith; 2022)

This reveals the nefarious way my mind works, but when I first read the title of this book, a cynical response popped into my head. How to inhabit time? Really? We need a philosopher to answer that question? Just wake up in the morning, and voila, we’re inhabiting time. We can’t not inhabit time.

Silliness aside, what concerns James K. A. Smith in How to Inhabit Time is the fact we can inhabit time less than faithfully as followers of Jesus. And since we almost never reflect on time, we may not even notice our unfaithfulness. It’s another way of being lost. His subtitle clarifies his theme: Understanding the Past, Facing the Future, Living Faithfully Now. It turns out those are not three separate themes, as we often think, but more like three creeks that flow into a single stream that is us living in time. Smith’s desire is to invite us to reflect biblically on what it means to live faithfully as time-bound creatures before the God who is the I AM, beyond time, Creator of it, and Sovereign over it and us.

As Smith makes clear in his Preface, How to Inhabit Time does not tell us how to plan more efficiently to be more productive in a consumerist culture. Being faithful in time is a far deeper issue than keeping track of things, scheduling well, and not missing appointments.

This book is an invitation to the spiritual adventure we call “time.” If it promises guidance on how to inhabit time, please don’t expect formulas or methods or tips for managing your day planner. Instead, the hope of this book is to occasion an awakening, a dawning awareness of what it means to be the sorts of creatures who dwell in the flux of time’s flow, who swim in the river of history. Knowing when we are can change everything. Knowing whether it’s dawn or dusk changes how you live the next moment. (p. xiii)

How to Inhabit Time is a book of theological philosophy that requires slow reading (if you are like me) and careful reflection. Don’t let this put you off. It is accessible to any serious, thoughtful reader, not an academic tome. And it is what used to be called edifying—the more I read the more I sensed the Spirit’s conviction and the pleasure of grace.

Time is so much a part of ordinary life and reality that it tends to go unnoticed (except for planning, of course). The difficulty with not reflecting on time is that we absorb values and ideas about it from a broken world and soon begin to imagine it not as a gift but as a problem to be defeated and brought under control. As I read, I found myself pausing often, rereading sections to be certain I understood. And then reflecting on how what Smith wrote should be applied to my thinking, my imagination, and my life. It’s a short book (174 pages) but packed with rich insight and biblical wisdom.

If all this suggests something that is burdensome, it isn’t. After all, most of us live busy lives, are already behind in reading and thinking, and so reading one more book about thinking about one more thing about which we need to be responsible can be uninviting. You’ll have to trust me on this, but How to Inhabit Time does not add burdens to busy lives but frees us to live more generously in God’s grace. Most of us struggle with regrets from the past, uncertainty about today, and fears for the future. The reality is that God made us finite, made us to live in time, and therefore we fit it and only in it can we flourish. St. Augustine realized that many centuries ago and reflected deeply on the topic in his writings. Now, Smith continues the process, and helps us see time not as a problem but as the divine gift it truly is. Part of the essence of being human is being a creature of and in time.

Rather than living with our past with regret, or guilt, or nostalgia, or forgetfulness, or sentimentality, we must see that God used our past to shape us for our calling in the present.

            Grace, we have said, is overcoming. Not undoing. Not effacing. Not regretful, but overcoming. There is something scandalous about the way God takes up this contingency in our lives—all of it, even the heartbreak and the sorrow, the evil and injustice—and forges it into this singular life that is mine, that is me. It is this me, the fruit of zigs and zags, stitches and scars, who is then renewed, empowered, called. I am the only one I could be.
            None of this justifies or excuses the heartbreak. 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. And yet now I am the me with that history, and without it, I would be someone else. [p. 67]

If I hadn’t had the past that shaped me, I would not be the person who could fulfill my calling in the present.

I was deeply moved by Smith’s insights about the past. The reason is that for too long I’ve tried to ignore my past because of the deep regrets that I feel about it. Regrets for what I have done or not done, and regrets for what has been done to me. For more on this see the excerpt I posted from How to Inhabit Time. You can find it here.

Our present, seeking to be faithful to our calling and shaped by our past, is to be more than merely hopeful for a future fulfillment of Christ’s Kingdom. It is to be that, but it is also to be kingdom living now, in the present. In every aspect of our lives—as far as Christ is King—we are to flesh out Kingdom values now.

            To live eschatologically now is not just a matter of looking toward the future. It is not simply a posture of expectation. It is to live futurally, to inhabit the present in such a way that the future is the beating heart of my now. To live futurally is not just to look for what comes next, like waiting for a pot to boil or like a child who hears the ice cream truck’s jingle three blocks away and is waiting for it to turn the corner. Such modes of waiting put a pause on living. My present life is crowded out by what’s coming. In contrast to this sort of passive expectation where my being and doing are subsumed or overwhelmed by waiting, living futurally is living in a such a way that my very mode of being-in-the-world is infused with anticipation. Instead of being defined by waiting, my active life is shaped by what I hope for. I am acting now on the basis of the future. I receive myself from the future. I am what I am called to be. [p. 152]

This is Kingdom living, and followers of Jesus are called to nothing less. It is why an allegiance to any -ism is idolatry. Our allegiance is to Christ and his Kingdom, and to Christ and his kingdom alone.

One final note. Please don’t take this summary of Smith’s argument as a reason not to read How to Inhabit Time. There is not-to-be-missed richness in the way he develops these insights. I commend the book to you.

Book recommended: How to Inhabit Time: Understanding the Past, Facing the Future, Living Faithfully Now by James K. A. Smith (Grand Rapids, MI; Brazos Press; 2022) 174 pages + notes.

Photo credit: by the author with his trusty iPhone.