Excerpt from How to Inhabit Time (James K. A. Smith; 2022)

When you read my enthusiastic review of How to Inhabit Time, you will know I urge every follower of Jesus to read it. It’s a serious book, one that is rich and penetrating, a book by a professional philosopher about, as the title suggests, time.

Time is one of those aspects of life and reality that is so ordinary, so expected, we usually fail to think about it much. And that’s unfortunate, because we were created for time and live in it from birth to death. So, often we simply absorb our culture’s view of and approach to time, which is something St. Paul warned about when he said we should not be “conformed to the world” but to instead lead “transformed” lives.

One of the things I struggle with in terms of living faithfully in time is regret for my past. Regret for so many things I have done, and failed to do, or that were done to me. Too much seems too full of shame and shoddiness to be worth anything except to forget, to leave it behind as unhelpful for my present in the hope I can do better in the future. If it is to be redeemed, it must be blotted out of memory, excised from time. In this section of his book [pp. 59-61], Dr. Smith addresses my dilemma. As I read his words, I sensed the Spirit of God whispering them to my heart and imagination.

            We are bundles of potentiality, but the possibilities are not infinite. We are thrown into a time and place, thrown into a story that is our history, and these form the horizons of possibility to us… That is not a limitation as much as a focusing, a gifted specificity. This corner of earth I’ve been given to till. These neighbors I am called to love. These talents I’m exhorted to fan into flame. This neighborhood in which to birth a future. “God with your love to the fields,” for the horizons that circumscribe you are not fencing you out of something but entrusting you to this field of possibility. What’s thrown your way is what you can do.
            And you don’t know what’s to come. (“No one knows what is to happen,” the Teacher counsels, “and who can tell anyone what the future holds?” Eccles. 10:14.) Your horizons are not static because you are essentially potentiality-for-Being. The future keeps unfolding, and what was future becomes the past that launches you into new possibilities. This dynamic of thrown possibility keeps unfolding across a lifetime. Formation never stops. My horizons are not petrified at twenty or even fifty. What I can’t possibly know are the environmental conditions that are going to be thrown my way in the future and those will reconfigure my horizons. There are still new habits in my future that I can’t yet anticipate.
            Reflecting on my personal history is like looking at archaeological strata: the layers of my identity are possibilities into which I have lived. What I can imagine, can choose, can hope is a factor of what I’ve inherited. What it means for me to be transformed is a factor of how I have been formed. I am not a blank slate of willpower; neither am I a robot programmed by a past.
            This situatedness of the human condition is no surprise to God, who reaches us under these conditions, within our horizons. Ultimately, to entrust oneself to God is to trust that it is God who has thrown us into this. That doesn’t nullify the contingency or specificity of our histories; but it does assure us of God’s presence in our histories. God’s grace does not lift us above the vicissitudes of time’s flow; rather the God who appears in the fullness of time catches all that’s been thrown our way in an embrace that launches us into a future that could only be ours because only we have lived this life that Christ redeems.
            While repentance is a turning, it should not be confused with nostalgic regret for the life thrown our way. On a collective level, we said that nostalgia is often a romanticized version of the past. On an individual level, while our culture does romanticize childhood and adolescence, there is a more insidious version of nostalgia in negative: shame. Shame is a nefarious enemy of grace that thrives on the backward glance. Shame keeps craning our necks to look at our past with downcast eyes, as a life to regret. There are highly spiritualized forms of this fixation that parades themselves as holiness. But in fact this is the antithesis of grace. Shame lives off the lie of spiritual self-improvement, which is why my past is viewed as a failure. Grace lives off the truth of God’s wonder-working mercy—my past, my story is taken up into God and God’s story. God is writing a new chapter of my life, not starting a new book after throwing out the first draft of my prior existence. Shame denies that our very being is possibility, whereas grace, by nature, is futural. Grace is good news of unfathomable possibility.
            God’s sanctifying presence in my life doesn’t erase what’s gone before. Indeed, what God has prepared for me depends on what has gone before. My personal history isn’t something to regret; it is something God can deploy in ways I never could have imagined.

This is, of course, the opposite of looking back with regret, believing that the only way to redeem my past is to forget it, delete it. God’s work of grace in my life is unique to me because I am the only one with my past. The possibilities that are thrown my way today are possibilities only because of my past. Somehow even all that I regret is deployed so as to make me more like Christ so that I can better live to God’s glory.

It is one thing to read these wise words. It is another thing to understand them. And it is yet something more to flesh them out as I live in time, with a past, looking towards the future.

Photo credit: Photo by DS stories (https://www.pexels.com/photo/word-regret-in-scrabble-game-6005414/)