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    Editors’ Picks: How to Inhabit Time

    In part personal memoir, in part philosophical reflection, James K. A. Smith’s How to Inhabit Time is a compelling read.

    By Joy Marie Clarkson

    May 16, 2023

    How to Inhabit Time is a curious book, braiding in many strands of concern and style: personal memoir, philosophical reflection, and devotional meditation. Its central fascination is how we as human beings are formed by being creatures who live in time, how our histories, personal and generational, shape the way we live, worship, and heal. Smith writes, “A rolling stone might carry no moss, but a temporal human being picks up and carries an entire history as they roll through a lifetime.” A substantial portion of the book features Smith’s reckoning with his own history, recollecting a long season of depression springing from his buried grief over his father’s abandonment, and the healing grace of therapy that helped him live with this broken history. These sections display a new energy and craft in Smith’s writing, distinct from his prior work. I found myself eager for more of this mode, wishing Smith would give it full rein.

    Smith has other concerns to attend to, however. He also wants to explore time’s philosophical dimensions, and to consider how temporality frames the very conditions of our existence and perception. He draws largely on the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger, with portions of the book devoted to Augustine, which might feel familiar to readers of his other work. Smith explores the concept of “thrownness” (Heidegger), horizons (Husserl), and distension (Augustine). For the most part, Smith integrates these concepts naturally and smoothly, less like an entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and more like a gardener seeking the right tool to unearth a deep and troublesome root. Only occasionally did the piles of references to other authors become onerous to this reader.

    While the core (and most compelling parts) of the book waft between memoir and philosophical pensées, Smith also devotes a significant portion of the book to his concerns for the church, and particularly the American church, which he thinks lives in “Nowhen” (a play on the idea of nowhere). Smith warns that those who “imagine themselves wholly governed by timeless principles, unchanging convictions, expressing an idealism that assumes they are wholly governed by eternal ideas untainted by history … are oblivious to the deposits of history in their own unconscious. They have never considered the archaeological strata in their own souls.” In particular, he addresses the wound of racial injustice in America, warning that if churches continue to forget their historic failure in this area, the wound will continue to fester. This strong call for reckoning is nourished by the devotional structure of the book, which invites readers to reflect on various passages in Ecclesiastes, to reckon with their own histories, and to place them into God’s hands. 

    The result is an interesting, sometimes moving, often compelling book. If occasionally it meanders, drags, or races, that is merely a reminder that so too does our experience of time, and indeed, life itself.

    Contributed By JoyClarkson2 Joy Marie Clarkson

    Joy Marie Clarkson holds a PhD in theology from the Institute for Theology and the Arts at the University of Saint Andrews. She hosts Speaking with Joy, a popular podcast about art, theology, and culture, and writes books.

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