Review: Understanding Pope Francis’ teaching about the spiritual value of time
In “Evangelii Gaudium,” Pope Francis puts forth a curious claim: “Time is greater than space.” James K.A. Smith probably did not write his How to Inhabit Time: Understanding the Past, Facing the Future, Living Faithfully Now to help us understand Pope Francis’ statement. And yet his thoughtful meditation on living in time reminded me of Francis’ teaching.
For Francis, prioritizing time means initiating processes, opening possibilities and letting people grow and change over time. Likewise, Smith describes his goal in the book as shifting our attention from the question of “where am I” to the question of “when am I?” It is not that we need to get with the times; rather, we need to get with our temporality. We need to authentically live our being as becoming, our lives as changing and our existence as being on the way to the God who made time for us.
Amidst the shouts and clamors of contemporary discourse and the griefs and anxiety of our time, Smith has held to a consistent course of writing. He writes to shed a little light, to offer some guidance and to help Christians be Christian. As he puts it, his philosophy is meant to help readers learn “how to live, how to be human.”
He writes in How to Inhabit Time that he seeks to reorient us to the reality of human life as temporal. Too many of us are attracted to a “spatial” life because we can control spaces and stop them from changing. Time, even when managed, is always beyond our control. Smith describes spatial prioritization as “nowhen” spirituality. He aims his critical eye toward those who see faithfulness as “a matter of guarding against change.” To recognize our temporality is to see that we cannot control time or stop change. We live now—out of our past and into our future. Wisdom is recognizing this flux and embracing it.
To recognize our temporality is to see that we cannot control time or stop change. We live now—out of our past and into our future. Wisdom is recognizing this flux and embracing it.
Smith’s book is an exercise in “spiritual timekeeping,” which he describes as “a matter of awakening to our embeddedness in history and attending to our temporality.” Spiritual timekeeping is about how our bodies, souls and communities exist through the retention of the past, attention to the present and anticipation of the future. We cannot escape our past, nor can we hide in it; we cannot live in the future, nor can we refuse the oncoming of it; we cannot avoid living in the present, nor can we exclusively live in it. We exist as extending through our past, present and future.
Smith explores this reality with philosophers like Martin Heidegger and Edmund Husserl. He also reflects on poetry, paintings and song lyrics while interspersing his text with meditations on the Book of Ecclesiastes and reflections on his own life.
The philosophical therapy that this book offers depends on its sometimes-rambling nature. Time tends to meander and diverge, and so a book about it should show how we navigate that meandering and diverging. Smith offers us a way of dwelling in our changing and becoming, our birthing and dying. To read him is to find a sense of meaning amidst the meandering.
The real question of time is how we will inhabit time. There is an authentic comportment to temporality that does not seek to hide within one of its modes—past, present or future. Authentic temporality sees the interrelationship of each as essential to our lives. For Christians, this authentic comportment means living between the event of Christ and the promise of his return. In this, Christianity is uniquely temporal, a religion shaped by remembering and awaiting. The question of our lives is how we will live in this history between the Ascension and the Second Coming without negating the sacral importance of the time in between.
This is no easy task. Christians can be tempted by the past (from which we receive our faith) or our future. (Why worry too much about now, when the future is what matters?) But we need to hold both together with the present in our being in time because we find God in time.
For Smith, this temporal authenticity entails embracing our ephemerality. It is not just that we pass through time, like I might pass through a room. I remain the same and so does the room. Rather, our passing through is our being. In passing through, we are changed with our times. As he writes, “to embrace the ephemeral is to live with such flux, to live gratefully amid change.” Just as it is not incidental to a song that it plays out over time, so too our life must “play on.” Rejecting flux is like stopping the song to preserve the music. Just as stopping the song means ending the music, halting time leads to stasis and stagnation.
We cannot escape our past, nor can we hide in it; we cannot live in the future, nor can we refuse the oncoming of it; we cannot avoid living in the present, nor can we exclusively live in it.
While Smith offers us rich opportunities for reflection, his book leans too heavily into the flux. He and I are both students of Augustine. But for Augustine, the eternal is better than the temporal. We need to cling to the former to live well in the latter. To order our temporal loves correctly is to place the eternal before the temporal and the lasting before the ephemeral. Humans are not only time-bound; we are immortal souls in mortal bodies. The eternal is not only above, but also within my temporality.
Likewise, the Christian vocation calls upon us to “stand fast and hold to the traditions we were taught” (2 Th 2:15). Smith offers important critiques of “nowhen Christians” for holding onto the zombies of tradition and claims that “the church is a people of the future.” Unliving traditionalism is a spiritual malady; to be a church is to be a people of hope. However, a Christian life is shaped by fidelity to what we have received and by commitments to what does not change.
My critique here is a matter of emphasis. Smith does not deny tradition or eternality. But he follows Heidegger a little too closely (by overemphasizing flux and ephemerality) and Augustine not closely enough (by downplaying constancy and changelessness).
Despite this, Smith offers a meditative reminder that Christians must get our timing right. We follow a God that “is not allergic to history” and live in a “history already open to the eternal.” Smith’s book is worth your time because he reminds us of this. He reminds us that there is nothing more important than getting our timing right. Christian spiritual timekeeping is best expressed by the season of Advent. The advent of Christ in the past is the promise of the advent of Christ in our present life, which orients us to the advent of Christ at the fulfillment of time. It is time we got that right.