Book review: How to Inhabit Time

Anvil journal of theology and mission

James K. A. Smith, How to Inhabit Time (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2022)

reviewed by Tom Wilson, St Philip’s Centre, Leicester

Smith describes How to Inhabit Time as an invitation to an adventure, a book to dwell in, a text to contemplate, rather than merely read. His central thesis is that “knowing when we are can change everything” (p.xiii). We must learn to inhabit history, recognise that we are temporal beings; in the words of his subtitle, understanding the past, facing the future, living faithfully now.

In his introduction, Smith makes a convincing case for the spiritual significance of timekeeping, and argues against what he calls “nowhen Christianities” which do not understand the time they are in.

The book is divided into six main chapters, interspersed with three meditations on sections of Ecclesiastes. The first meditation is on Eccles. 3:9–15. Smith discusses the ambiguity of 3:10. Is it “I have seen the burden God has laid upon the human race” (NIV) or “I have seen the business that God has given everyone to be busy with” (NRSV)? Is being in time a burden or a gift, or both?

Chapter one explores what it is to be a temporal creature, critiquing the Christian tendency to nostalgia and discussing how to engage with the fossils of history. Chapter two then examines how to learn from ghosts. There are some particularly powerful short reflections in this chapter, including on the spiritual lessons to be learned from the different growth rates of tropical and arctic trees, and the migration of the monarch butterfly. Smith notes we’re neither blank slates nor robots, but God’s creatures in the flow of time.

The second meditation is on Eccles. 7:10–14, on the dangers of nostalgia and the march of time. Chapter three then explores time as kairos, noting how Jesus calls followers, not simply eyewitnesses, and that Christianity can collapse time, interweaving the lives of the saints regardless of their chronological placement. Chapter four builds on this with an invitation to embrace the ephemeral, urging us to learn to love what we’ll lose. One way Smith recommends we do this is to leave our phones at home and simply savour the moment. He asks, “What if enjoying mortality means we stop chasing the wind and learn how to hoist a sail?” (p.103).

The third meditation explores Eccles. 11:7–12:8, noting even the mist and vapour that obscures is a gift of God. Chapter five then invites us to inhabit our now. Through meditations on gardening, Smith discusses the importance of living in whatever season of life we are in, which requires Spirit-filled discernment and the courage to let go. While the Bible may not change, the way we hear it does, depending on what season we are in. Chapter six encourages us to not live ahead of time, reflecting on Augustine’s City of God, and 1 Thess., among other texts. We should be orientated to the future, but living in the present, crying both “how long Lord?” and “maranatha!”.

The Epilogue contains a beautiful post-Communion prayer, including the line “We thank you that in you we are kept safe forever, and that the broken fragments of our history are gathered up in the redeeming act of your dear Son” (p.171). This sums up Smith’s point in How to inhabit time, that God holds us, cares for us and sends us out in his service.

How to Inhabit Time is a text to treasure; to read right through, but also to dip into. To take your time with, to savour. Highly recommended for anyone looking for a thought-provoking exploration of what it means to live a faithful Christian life.

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