What Time Is It?: A Review of How to Inhabit Time

March 30, 2023
Author: James K. A. Smith
Publisher: Brazos Press
Publishing Date: September 20, 2022
Pages: 208 (Hardcover)
ISBN: 978-1587435232

When I was a kid, my family took a trip every year to the mountain cabin built by my great grandparents. My fledgling life was formed and shaped along the banks of the Jim Creek (as it is known to the locals). Every summer, in the span of only a couple of weeks, I would catch fish, hike trails, build toy boats out of wood scraps in the garage, and observe the hummingbirds fighting over the feeder suspended from the front porch.

Even though the cabin is no longer in my family, and even though Jim Creek courses differently through Jamestown than it did during my childhood years, that place and those memories are in my DNA. I am who I am because of what I experienced in Jamestown, and who I will be in the future will continue to be shaped by the life I lived in the past. Brilliant theologian and author James K.A. Smith would call this awareness “spiritual timekeeping,” which he defines in his book How to Inhabit Time as “living out the faith with a disciplined temporal awareness.”

The way we view time theologically matters. If we view the present moment as merely the waiting room for eternity, we will struggle to listen for Christ’s call in the now that we’re in. Harper Lee wisely pointed out the flaw in this future focus when she wrote this in To Kill a Mockingbird: “There are just some kind of men who–who’re so busy worrying about the next world they’ve never learned to live in this one, and you can look down the street and see the results.” Or, as Smith puts it, this kind of future-only focus “actually generates unfaithful responses to the present.”

“If we view the present moment as merely the waiting room for eternity, we will struggle to listen for Christ’s call in the now that we’re in.”

We can also err the other way when it comes to spiritual timekeeping. We can hyperfocus on the past. This kind of backward-looking focus leads to an idealized view of what was, a mental harmonizing of past events that creates a longing within us for a time that never existed. In other words, we remember only the good and discard the bad, and we long for a day that never was. Or, we can look back and feel the sting of shame and become mired in a past as though it will define us forever.

As people of faith, Smith argues (and I agree), we cannot ignore our pasts or forget our promised future. We bring all of these parts of ourselves and our story within God’s story into our present moment. This moment—this time in which we find ourselves—is important, and we would not be who we are without the experiences of our past or the hope that is to come. 

How to Inhabit Time is a thought-provoking read that isn’t intended to be devoured in one sitting. I found myself grateful for the page breaks every few pages so I could put down the book and allow the words to sink into my mind and heart. I found the depth of the content difficult to process at points, but Smith’s warning against time disorientation in Christianity is important. He calls rootless, historically aimless Christianity “nowhen Christianity,” which he describes as being “wholly governed by timeless principles, unchanging convictions” and “idealism that assumes they are wholly governed by eternal ideas untainted by history.” 

By contrast, faithfully inhabiting time means recognizing we are products of our time. We are shaped by our pasts, we belong to a certain present moment, all while longing for God’s preferred future. Smith highlights the importance of recognizing the chronos time we are living in (the chronological, orderly movement of time) without neglecting the kairos (sacred time). Because of the reality of sacred time, churches can rehearse the same events in the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus every year without those events becoming stale or overdone. The sacredness of these holy moments becomes real in an intimate and personal way every time they are observed.

The book is divided into sections, each section begun by a reflection on the book of Ecclesiastes. My pastor’s heart enjoyed each of these reflections as a way of meditating on Scripture’s call to reflect on the value of time. Was the Teacher who wrote Ecclesiastes a pessimist who thought everything was meaningless? Or, was he encouraging a faithful inhabiting of time as he reminded his readers of the temporality of each present moment? Smith takes the latter approach, and so do I, and I found this pastoral reminder encouraging.

Many years after my family’s mountain cabin was sold, I took a trip with my husband and kids back to Jamestown. We stood outside the fence surrounding the cabin, and I felt tears catch in my eyes and my breath halt in my throat. In that moment, all of those past memories flooded me and became alive in my heart again. All those formative days spent in this place began to work on me again. I think my family was surprised to see my emotion, and I was surprised by it too. Our pasts do not remain in our pasts because we bring them with us in who we are. We would not be who we are today without those past events. 

“Our pasts do not remain in our pasts because we bring them with us in who we are.“

Yet, the past does not define us either. We are not prisoners of our pasts. We are shaped by our own history, and by the history of those who went before us, as we live in the present moment pointed toward the future God has for us. How to Inhabit Time encouraged me to embrace all of who I am, and all of what the church has been and is called to be, as an act of worship of the God who created the rhythm of day and night.

About the Author
  • April Fiet is a mom of two school-age kids and a co-pastor alongside her husband, Jeff, at the First Presbyterian Church of Scottsbluff, Nebraska.

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