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How to Inhabit Time [a review]

James K.A. Smith's newest, How to Inhabit Time, is a lovely meditation on what it means to be a time-bound creature. He contends that many people today, particularly evangelicals, believe they live "nowhen," by which he means they labor under the notion that they are unaffected and unformed by all that has come before them:

Those who imagine they inhabit nowhen imagine themselves wholly governed by timeless principles, unchanging convictions, expressing an idealism that assumes they are wholly governed by eternal ideas untainted by history. They are oblivious to the deposits of history in their own unconscious. They have never considered the archaeological strata in their own souls.

Theologically, this plays itself out in various ways, such as the primitivist Christian who thinks that their faith and practice springs directly from the Bible and thus is more faithful than all those other Christians who cling to tradition. The mistake here, according to Smith, is not a high regard for the authority of Scripture, but a naïveté about how one is shaped by the flow of time whether one knows it or not.

This attention to timeless principles over and against the seasonal timeliness also shapes our present civil discourse. Smith reflects on the civil unrest of 2020 and that peculiarly polarizing phrase, "Black Lives Matter." The assertion is not some kind of timeless proposition, says Smith, but a historically contingent assertion "necessary because of a distinct and particular history of oppression and exploitation, a history that was far from past." Because White Evangelicals reflexively tend to view things through a propositional, timeless lens, their instinct was to retort, "No, all lives matter." The frustration of that discourse stemmed from their inability to read the statement through a time-bound, historically situated lens.

A keen awareness of our own temporal situatedness is also the antidote to overly optimistic views of the future (such as leftist progressivism or rightwing postmillennialism) as well as overly pessimistic views of our own fortunes (will the traumas of life never end?). Time humbles us, because it forces us to reckon with the fact that "everything I'm able to dream and hope and chase in the future is because of what has been bequeathed to me by those who have preceded me." I'm reminded of a recent Jordan Peterson video where he urged churches to call out young men to greatness, as if the call of Scripture was simply that we'd build our own ladders to heaven. Peterson's words likely struck a chord in many young men's hearts, because it appeals to the age-old desire that we might be like God. In contrast, Smith counsels, "There's a difference between believing we are the ones we've been waiting for and realizing the are called to join the Spirit of God coursing through history." When one begins to realize one's place in time, it dispels our delusions of grandeur and allows us to do good in our short day under the sun without having to be written up in the books because of it.

If I had one quibble, it's that How to Inhabit Time reads sometimes like an only loosely connected set of musings and meditations on time, and the side effect is that it can be somewhat difficult to collect my thoughts about it. That's not all bad, though: since I finished it, thoughts about time and my place in it have been soaking in my brain. It leaves some general impressions rather than a pointed instruction about how one ought to inhabit time. Set your expectations accordingly, and enjoy the process!

DISCLAIMER: I received a copy of this book from the publisher for the purpose of a fair, unbiased review.

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