James K. A. Smith, Calvin philosophy professor and the Gary and Henrietta Byker Chair in Applied Reformed Theology and Worldview, talks about his new book How to Inhabit Time: Understanding the Past, Facing the Future, Living Faithfully Now.
What inspired you to write this book?
There were a few inspirations. The first, to be candid, was my own experience of therapy for depression, which was a personal exercise of reckoning with my past, so I could “live forward” into a different future. In counseling, coming to terms with the past allowed me to hope again. But then reckoning with our collective past is also something we have been undergoing as a country, particularly as we grapple with systemic racism and police brutality, since the murder of George Floyd. Finally, my work is part of a broader conversation about spiritual formation (in the work of Dallas Willard and Tish Harrison Warren, for example), and it seemed to me that we had not yet taken seriously the significance of time in spiritual formation. I hope How to Inhabit Time takes us in new directions.
What can a reader expect to find in the pages of How to Inhabit Time?
The book sort of defies genre. It includes aspects of memoir; biblical meditations on Ecclesiastes; and extensively engages the arts, including poetry, music, and painting. But overall, as I say in the book, my hope is that How to Inhabit Time revives the ancient art of philosophy as spiritual counsel. Philosophy as a way of life is a mission that we are committed to in the Calvin philosophy department. In How to Inhabit Time, this translates into an invitation to a more contemplative life, one in which we cultivate awareness about the spiritual significance of time.
What does a healthy relationship to time look like?
There are many facets of this, but I think it is fundamentally a matter of accepting our creaturehood accepting our finitude. With the creation of the cosmos, God also created time, which he affirmed as “very good.” So being creatures who live in the flux of history and the vicissitudes of time is part of the goodness of creaturehood. Of course, this is affected by sin and the Fall, but redemption for us creatures is not escaping time but learning how to inhabit it faithfully. That means reckoning with our past and discerning what God is calling us to in the present, all with the goal of living into the future with hope. We also have to take history seriously in order to know when we are. Specifically, we can’t know who we are, or what we’re called to, if we don’t understand how we got to the present moment. When we undertake this reflection on our past what has been handed down to us we can also discern the possibilities God’s grace opens for the future. There’s a lot more to say about this. For example, one chapter of the book considers why we experience time in “seasons” and how embracing that makes a difference for the Christian life. There’s also a chapter on “learning to love what you’ll lose.” These are various aspects of what I call “spiritual timekeeping.”
Christianity can seem like yet another polarizing paradigm in our current milieu, and believers and non-believers alike may wonder if the historical church is still relevant? How does your book address that question?
Well, I think many of those polarizing versions of Christianity are often unfaithful renditions of the faith precisely because they have cut themselves off from historic Christianity. One of the persistent problems with American Christianity, for example, is its tendency to spawn “freelance” forms that revolve around cults of celebrity. In fact, it has often been in the name of “relevance” that people ignore the riches and wisdom of the historic Christian tradition. Only our apprenticeship to the historic faith will give us the resources to resist merely falling prey to the zeitgeist. We are called to be faithfully present to our “now,” without merely being products of the present.