Online Conversation | How To Inhabit Time with James K. A. Smith
Online Conversation | How To Inhabit Time with James K. A. Smith

Time often seems a scarce resource — one we increasingly attempt to stretch, squeeze, prolong, or kill. Yet for all of our attempted manipulation of time, we increasingly sense we are living “nowhen” — disconnected from the past and distracted from the present — leaving us more vulnerable to nostalgia, disorientation, and anxiety for the future.

On Friday, September 23rd, The Trinity Forum hosted an Online Conversation with Dr. James K.A. Smith, author of the new book How to Inhabit Time, to examine the ways in which we can understand and move from enmeshment in time to habitation, and develop a “temporal awareness” attuned to both the grittiness of chronological history and the kairos of faith.

We are grateful to our sponsors for their generous support: Laura Grace Alexander

Thank you to Image Journal, our co-host for their support of this event

Online Conversation | James K. A. Smith | September, 23, 2022

Cherie Harder: And let me just add my own welcome to all of you joining us for today’s Online Conversation with Jamie Smith on “How to Inhabit Time.” I’d also like to add my thanks to Laura Grace Alexander for her generous sponsorship of today’s program, as well as to thank our friends at Image journal for co-hosting today’s program with us. We’re big fans of your work, and it’s a real pleasure to get to collaborate with you.

And I’d also like to welcome our right around 2,300 registrants joining us today, including over 350 first-time viewers, and our more than 250 guests from at least 39 countries that we know of, ranging from the Aland Islands to Australia, Pakistan to the Philippines, Spain to Sri Lanka. So if we haven’t heard of you or you’re joining us for the first time, drop us a note in the chat box or the Q&A feature and let us know where you’re from. It’s fun for us to get to see the range of folks joining us from across the miles and across the time zones.

And if you are one of those more than 350 people who are joining us for the very first time or are otherwise new to the work of the Trinity Forum, we seek to provide a space to engage the big questions of life in the context of faith through programs like this, and in hopes of inviting everyone to come to better know the Author of the answers.

And today, the big question that we’ll consider is one that could be considered both timely and timeless: how to wisely inhabit the time that’s been given to us. And if that conjures up ideas or expectations of time-management tips or tactics, prepare to be surprised. Our guest today, whose excellent and brand-new work How to Inhabit Time: Understanding the Past, Facing the Future, and Living Faithfully Now takes a markedly different approach. Instead of firing off strategies for mastering time or increasing one’s productivity or urging radical action because time is running out, he instead invites the reader to a slower, deeper discernment and aims, in his words, to “occasion a dawning awareness of what it means to be the sorts of creatures who dwell on the flux of time’s flow, who swim in the river of history. Knowing when we are,” he writes, “can change everything.” So today we’ll explore what it means to be a creature of time, to live in a way that understands the constraints of the past and the contingencies of the future, etched upon our present moment, to learn what it means to love well that which will be lost, and to develop the habits of attunement that enable discerning timekeeping.

And it’s hard to imagine a more engaging or expert sherpa for this journey than our guest today, Dr. James K. A. Smith. James, or Jamie, as he’s known to his friends, is a philosopher and professor at Calvin College, the editor-in-chief of the renowned Image journal, and the award-winning author of numerous books, including Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?, Desiring the Kingdom, The Devil Reads Derrida, You Are What You Love, Awaiting the King, his excellent work On the Road with Saint Augustine: A Real-World Spirituality for Restless Hearts, which we got to host him to discuss just two years ago, and his brand-new release from Brazos Books How to Inhabit Time: Understanding the Past, Facing the Future, and Living Faithfully Now. In addition, his popular writing has appeared in publications such as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Books and Culture, First Things, and many other publications. And last but certainly not least, I am very proud to say that he is a senior fellow of the Trinity Forum.

Jamie, welcome.

James K. A. Smith: It’s always great to be with you. Thanks so much, Cherie.

Cherie Harder: It’s really great to have you here. As we start out, we’ll start at the very beginning, and you begin your book with a personal story of your own struggles with depression and the ways that health and healing necessarily involved dealing with a sense of temporal dislocation. And you later mentioned that knowing when we are can change everything. So what does it mean to know “when we are” and why is that so important?

James K. A. Smith: Yeah, I think I opened the book in that way in many ways because I would say that experience of spiritual reckoning that therapy and counseling offered was almost like my first opportunity to practice this sense of temporal location, like discerning when I am in order to understand who I am. And I think what had happened before that, and what I needed to work through, was I didn’t really fully understand who I was—and maybe not even fully understand what I was called to be—because I hadn’t yet really reckoned with the stories I carried inside me, the histories that were buried in me that were nonetheless very present and active, but they were sort of like working on me in unconscious ways. And so I didn’t have an account of that. I didn’t have a handle on them. So I would say, you know, I kind of lacked self-knowledge because I didn’t know when I was. I hadn’t done this hard work of grappling with the story I had lived out, what I have gone through, what I have undergone.

And I think that’s just— I think that’s an endeavor for all of us as human beings. I think to be a creature who is living into the fullness of being human means grappling with, reckoning with, and sort of gratefully receiving the way that our past, our history, our embeddedness in time has contributed to this unique identity that God has made us to fulfill. And it’s hard work. I will say, if that opening sort of therapeutic case is an example, it’s a sign that this doesn’t come naturally to us. It’s something we have to take on.

Cherie Harder: Yeah. How does one become temporally dislocated in the first place? Like what happens?

James K. A. Smith: Yeah, it’s sort of like Aristotle says, “There are many ways to miss the mark and one way to hit the bullseye.” So I think there can be different kinds of diagnoses of why we get temporally dislocated. Let me suggest a couple. First of all, I do think that there are a lot of facets of contemporary culture, maybe especially contemporary American culture, as many of us experience it, that sort of mitigate against this kind of awareness. Now, some of it is because we are invited to just be incessantly distracted from any kind of contemplative reckoning with anything. So that could be one problem. But there’s also something sort of built into late modern culture that I think tries to transcend or escape time. So ironically, one of the ways that we can get disoriented in time is by the hubris of imagining that we are not conditioned by it, that we can sort of transcend it, that we can surf time. Or, as you suggested in your opening too, or we get tempted to think, “Oh, time is something I can master. Time is something I can control. Time is a commodity that is there for my mastery and deployment.” I think all of those, what they do is they sort of encourage a naivete about the extent to which we are not masters of time as much as we think. And we certainly don’t float above time. We are historical creatures. My identity has this sort of genealogy to it, and I’m a product of history, even though I am also the sort of person who is— we have agency and we can impact history. I think facing that reality of our temporal embeddedness is a bit countercultural in some ways.

Cherie Harder: Yeah. You know, you mentioned a couple of different forms of dislocation in your book that I wanted to ask you about, because in many ways, they’re sort of counterintuitive. One of them is nostalgia, you know, in that it’s sort of— many of us might think like, “Oh, this is actually an embeddedness in the past, an orientation towards the past, and a familiarity with it.” And you’ve made the argument that it’s actually something very different. It’s a dislocation, a misplaced sentimentality. How does nostalgia disconnect us from what you called spiritual timekeeping, which we’ll dig into in a second?

James K. A. Smith: Yeah. No, I’m so glad you noted that. I do think— don’t you think it’s quite a powerful narcotic on offer right now? And I think— so maybe we can put it this way: In some ways, it’s not a question of whether you relate to your past. It’s a question of how you relate to your past. So even if you’re telling yourself mythologies that you’re above it all and you’re immune to history and so on, you’re not. So in that case, your relationship to your historical nature is going to be disordered because of illusion. I think what goes on in nostalgia is, of course, it is a way of remembering. And I think to be human, we have to remember. But it’s how nostalgia remembers that is disordering. And the problem with nostalgia is not that it remembers. The problem with nostalgia is what it actively forgets. As you said, it’s kind of a sentimental—. What goes on in nostalgia is we sort of romanticize a rendition of a past. We concoct a version of the past that has usually this feel of kind of the golden age, the good old days, the best of times. You know, college was the time of your life, whatever it might be. There are whole industries that kind of feed off of this nostalgic impulse. But it’s disordering because, in fact, it is very selective. It’s edited. It often sort of rubs out and erases the aspects of our history that might be disordering our loves, that might be disordering our habits. And so nostalgia is, it looks like it’s a form of remembering. And it is. But it doesn’t— it forgets half. And it’s the half that’s forgotten that might actually be what is most carried by us right now that we have to reckon with. Does that make sense?

Cherie Harder: Oh, absolutely, yeah. I also wanted to ask you, on the flip side of that, the orientation towards the future. And one of the reasons why this occurred to me is it seems like there are a lot of new books coming out that invoke time, but in a very different way. And it’s all about time is running out. The hour is now. There is an invocation or a spur to radical, even extreme action. And so I wanted to ask you about that. I think at one point you call it doomsday-ism, the urgency of the present oriented towards the future. Tell us more about that and how that might distract from what you’ve called spiritual timekeeping.

James K. A. Smith: Yeah. So what I think is healthy, creaturely temporality—spiritual timekeeping, let’s say—is not just this sort of reckoning with the past, it’s actually reckoning with the past for the sake of answering the call to live forwards, to live into a future. And I actually think at the heart of the Christian faith is a futural conception of being human and of being the community. But in the same way that you can think about the past, you can relate to the past in disordered ways, I think culturally we also see forms of being oriented to the future that are primarily oriented to the future in terms of fear. In other words, fear becomes the governing mode in which I anticipate and expect my future. And so you can get, as you said, a kind of doomsday-ism where now it’s just this countdown clock to apocalypse, to disaster.

And I don’t mean to say that we shouldn’t be on guard. Right? And planning for what’s coming. But there’s a difference between that sort of doomsday-ism, which is almost like invested in apocalypse, versus, well, to put it very starkly, I guess, hope. That is so different from hope. Hope is a way of viewing futural in which your expectation is not cut to the measure of what you can see in the present. I think that’s the real game changer. I think most forms of doomsday-ism are kind of locked within a limited purview where you take what you have in the present and all you have is the ability to extrapolate that into a future. Whereas [in] a biblical vision, I think a Christian vision, of the future, hope is possible precisely because you don’t think the present is all there is. And you also don’t think that humans are the only agents in this, that the God of the cosmos who fires the world with love is out ahead of us, which is precisely why there can always be new possibilities. I think that’s radical for us to think about personally and individually, and I think it’s radical for us to think about collectively and communally.

Cherie Harder: Yeah. So returning to the past for just a second, you had a phrase that I really loved in your book to describe the way that our histories, our habits, our past kind of helps form us. You called it “wearing time.” In some ways there’s probably a riff here off the idea that the body keeps the score, but I’m sure most of us, if not all of us, who are watching today have histories, have aspects of our past, have unwanted habits that we know have formed us in ways that we would not wish. We would like to undo. Going back to like your idea of spiritual timekeeping, how does this help us to recognize and potentially even heal from histories that have wounded and could cripple. How do we think about redeeming the wounds rather than simply continuing to suffer from them?

James K. A. Smith: Yeah. And your question is, it’s at this intersection where you’ll notice I keep sort of dancing back and forth in the book because you could take up that question in a very personal and individual way, right? Like, what does this look like in my life? And then you can also think of it on a communal and collective register for our life, whatever “us” we might be talking about. I think the sort of the “beats,” if you will, of this movement towards renewal and restoration and redemption and transformation is cultivating the awareness, first of all. Right? So doing the sort of contemplative— we’re hitting the pause button on our frenetic absorption in the moment to sort of step back and try to take stock of who we are because of when we are and where we’ve come from and what our history is. And as you say, that might mean now reckoning with habits of being that I have acquired over time that I want to, I realize, [are] not in line with the kingdom of God—I want to undo.

Okay, then what do I do? Well, I think that awareness becomes an occasion for new intentionality for me to try to start giving myself over to rhythms and rituals and repertoires that are re-formative. Right? That are helping me to unlearn. This is why I really do think that there’s a bridge that’s built from You Are What You Love: On the Spiritual Power of Habit to this book. Now we’re thinking about the temporal dynamics of it. I would say, the thing I think I would add now, though, at this point in the new book is—and I hope this doesn’t sound— Well, I’ll just put it this way: I think I have an overwhelming appreciation for the patience that’s required for transformation. And this itself is very countercultural when we live in a kind of quick-fix culture. I think making oneself available to God’s grace with intentionality also requires the gift of God giving us a patience to know it takes time to be transformed. In the same way that it took time for me to be formed and, in some cases, malformed, it is going to take time for me to be transformed. And God’s not surprised by that. God is not scandalized by that. God plays a long game. He is steadfast and faithful to his covenants, and I hope that would feel like a liberating truth to live into as we aspire to be more like the image-bearers that God has made us to be.

Cherie Harder: Yeah. Yeah, that’s fascinating. This reader certainly saw lots of bridges between your current book and You Are What You Love, as well as others.

James K. A. Smith: Great.

Cherie Harder: And one that kind of, you know, that is going to occasion this question is just the idea that you are what you love. But when we kind of overlay our own temporality on that, that means that whatever we love we will lose, because we are creatures and we are mortal creatures. We will pass, and the things that we love will also pass. But that also feels very wrong to us internally—at least it does to me. That one’s more oriented towards wanting to love and to prioritize what’s enduring, what will remain. So I’d love to hear you kind of reflect on, you know, as an Augustinian philosopher who believes that you are what you love, what does it mean to learn to love what you’ll lose?

James K. A. Smith: Yeah. So much of this book is about receiving the gift of creature-hood and affirming the good of creature-hood. And even maybe—if it doesn’t sound too strange to say so—receiving the gift of our mortality. Overarching all of this is a deep, abiding trust in God’s steadfastness and God’s eternity. But it’s also then recognizing this distinction between the creature and the creator. And it’s interesting. You can still get a lot of religious impulses, Christianized impulses, that effectively kind of resent being a creature and want to arrogate to ourselves the sort of stability and eternality that is only true of the Creator, whereas, in fact, I think instead part of the humility and patience of learning how to be a creature in time is learning to love what you will lose, which is to say, not all loss is tragic. Some is. I don’t want— the rending of the Fall that we still experience is an affront to goodness, truth, and beauty. And that’s why we have psalms of lament. But there are other kinds of sort of losses that are not tragic. They are just sort of the arc of a being who lives through time and history. And if we sort of cling to those temporal, ephemeral things as if they would never pass away, well, Augustine says that’s the recipe for idolatry. Because now you’re treating those things—good, beautiful, creative things—but you’re treating them as if they were God and they’re not. They’re creatures.

So there’s something about learning to receive the good, beautiful things of creation with a bit more of an open hand. So they are received with gratitude to enjoy while we have them but trying to cultivate a posture such that we are not utterly bereft when they very naturally become something else or pass away. And we don’t have to just think of objects, but I think of, for example, as a father, you know, toddlerhood with children is such a remarkable, just incredible, enchanted time. But it doesn’t last forever. It does not last forever. And sometimes, by the way, I also recognize if you’re in the midst of toddlerhood and you’re like, “Oh, my gosh, is this going to last forever?” But it doesn’t last forever. And it would be disordered, it would be sort of clinging for me, to just try to keep like nostalgically looking back to that, as if that was the best that we could have experienced. Because I’m actually now shutting down the possibility that in the next moment and in the next season, God has new gifts to give me in those relationships with these good growing creatures who are becoming different. I think learning to hold these good, beautiful things with open hands is part of this practice of spiritual timekeeping.

Cherie Harder: You know, along those lines, I had something happen two days ago that made me think about our upcoming conversation. I was taking a walk with a friend. We stepped outside. It was hot. She complained about how muggy and stifling it was. And I made some throwaway comment about, “Oh, well, it’s going to rain tomorrow and it’s going to be cooler from here on out.” And she responded by saying, “Oh, well, then I’m going to cherish today.” And I thought, well, now that’s interesting. Just a moment ago, she was complaining, but the ephemerality of it made her value it in a new way. And [I] was a sort of curious kind of what you thought about— Does our very temporality or ephemerality help us to to better love or more wisely love the gifts we have now?

James K. A. Smith: Yeah. Although I think you also gave your friend a gift because you just reframed ever so slightly, and that reframe sort of changed her own posture to it, right? I think that’s exactly right. It’s one of the reasons why in the book I say the arts are particularly powerful, I think. And our friend Mako Fujimura talks about this a lot, too. There’s something about the arts [that] have a capacity to sort of reframe the ephemeral so that we come to that moment of cherishing it, even though we know that we’re going to lose it. And I think that sense of embracing—it’s almost like the goodness is intensified if you can get to the place where you realize that this is given for a time, right? And it is given to enjoy to its fullness for a time. I think that kind of receptivity and availability to the moment is the kind of “in the now” that is biblically faithful.

Cherie Harder: Yeah. You mentioned earlier the bridges between this work and You Are What You Love. I also saw certainly some parallels or bridges between this book and your last one, On the Road with Saint Augustine. And one of the themes that seemed to kind of be central to both was that of orientation—

James K. A. Smith: Yeah.

Cherie Harder: —locating oneself in the proper place, whether that’s through cartography or archeology, which you mentioned in both works. And so it made me think, like, okay, you’ve had these works of orientation both through space—on a road trip with Saint Augustine—and now time. So you’ve kind of traversed the space-time continuum. After all of those wanderings, what have you learned and where have you found yourself?

James K. A. Smith: Wow. That’s a great question. I don’t know if you could feel it—I do feel like this was a book I could only have written in middle age, which is kind of confirming one of the parts of the argument, which is there are going to be kinds of insight and illumination and understanding that are only available once I’ve undergone time. I couldn’t rush it no matter how smart I am. I wouldn’t be able to rush my way to this understanding of myself or of God or of the world, because I had to sort of go through it. And I think where I am and when I am now is somebody who probably is a little less confident in all of his own analyses. And yet even more confident and rooted in the steadfastness of God’s love that I think I know on a register that is deeper and more elusive than anything I would be able to articulate—which is probably why I find myself in this moment really kind of drawn to the contemplative traditions of Christian spirituality: Henri Nouwen, Saint Teresa of Avila, Thomas Merton. I just, I find there is a vision of how to relate to the God of the cosmos that has an expansiveness and a quietness that my younger self wouldn’t have even have been able to understand and probably would have been a little suspicious of. 

And so I hope I’m a little more humble than I used to be. I hope I’m a little more compassionate than I used to be. And if I can grow up to be a little bit more like Mr. Rogers, it will have been a life well lived.

Cherie Harder: That’s great. Well, we have a bunch of questions all lined up from our viewers. And if you’re joining us for the first time, I want to let you know that you can not only ask a question in the Q&A box, but you can also “like” a question. And that helps give us a sense of what some of the most popular questions are. So our first question comes from Caleb Buchanan. And Caleb asks, “How does an awareness of our own temporality help us help friends and family who are struggling with aging and their own mortality?”

James K. A. Smith: Powerful question. There’s a chapter later in the book called “Seasons of the Heart.” And I think one of the ways that a spiritual timekeeping kind of reframes the spiritual life is that we understand it is very natural and human to experience God and the world in these sort of seasons that have their own sort of focal call and expectations and responsibilities. And to realize that a season of approaching the end is something that is common—universal—and natural. And I think one of the greatest gifts that we can give one another is to share stories about how those we’ve been with and near have gone through that season so that we are prepared for it in our own lives and with those we love.

One of the things I say in the book is that you can’t ever really transcend time, you can’t escape the flux of time, but you can cheat a little if you make friends across generations. Because if you can cultivate friendships with those who are down the road, so to speak, further on in their history, and they report back to you, it’s kind of like hearing from the future. And I think there are so many lessons and gifts to be given to one another. I think that’s part of it. Ultimately, in this particular case, by the way, I think we are always trying to cultivate an awareness and appreciation of God’s steadfast love. The God we know in spiritual timekeeping is Emmanuel, God with us. That is the constant across all of our seasons and all of our moments and all of our lives. And to lean into that, I think is where hope is found.

Cherie Harder: So a question from Nate Swanson. Nate asked, “How do you see emerging technologies like the metaverse influencing how people inhabit time, and should Christians embrace and use such technologies? And if so, how should we do so in light of your argument?”

James K. A. Smith: Nate, this question makes me feel so old because I don’t know what you’re talking about. Well, I know— I’ve seen headlines enough. I honestly don’t know. Somebody call Alan Jacobs or Andy Crouch. I’m not sure— it would be— I’ve never been in the metaverse—megaverse?—the metaverse, and so I don’t know what time feels like, but I do worry that there are a lot of technologies and devices that are mostly ways of us trying to transcend our creature-hood rather than receive our creature-hood. And so in that sense, I guess I have cautions, at least. I don’t have a strong take, but I have cautions about such developments.

Cherie Harder: So Brody Heginbonum asks, “Theologian Luke Brotherton calls for an ‘impatient endurance’ as Christians strive for the world now to reflect more of the kingdom’s justice and shalom. Injustice and sin we experience should be at once intolerable and therefore faithfully confronted, but also endured with perseverance. How do we find the balance between faithful actions to bring shalom and perseverance?”

James K. A. Smith: I think Luke nails it. I mean, that’s exactly the dance of a kind of sanctified impatience, a kind of— There is a temptation to want to rush the kingdom’s arrival because we think we’ve figured it out. And so I’ve always, I’ve long appreciated this letter that Augustine wrote to a Roman governor named Boniface who thought, “You know what, I’ll take the arrival of the kingdom into my own hands.” And Augustine writes to him and he says, “We ought not to want to live ahead of time with only the saints and righteous.” So I think it’s a temptation to want to live ahead of time.

On the other hand, we have to constantly hear Dr. King’s critique in which he says, “We can’t have anything to do with the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.” Right? So we’re not sitting back twiddling our thumbs waiting for this [to] arrive. We are laboring for the sake of it.

And so I think it’s about being animated by a vision of justice and flourishing and to realize that that’s what God wants to see the fullness of the world arrived to. And so we are caught up in that work. We are joining God in that redemption, but realizing that we can’t rush it. And so there’s a kind of tempered expectation about its arrival or what we can achieve. And in the meantime, one thing I talk about [in] the book briefly is the notion of discerning what faithful compromise looks like, given that you can’t achieve the kingdom here and now. You want to try to embody as you’re able. But you realize you live in a world that is still awaiting redemption as well. So you kind of— there’s some brokering and a lot of ad hoc discernment that has to go on. Christians will disagree about those things, but I think it’s better that we cultivate the practices and virtues necessary for that kind of work than trying to rush ahead and live ahead of time, as Augustine puts it.

Cherie Harder: We have quite a few questions on embodiment, so I’m going to combine two of them. Lee Wanock—and Lee, apologies if I mangled your name—asks, “How does knowing ‘when we are’ relate to our genetic heritage?” And Jenny Ho Quan asked, “Can you comment on time and embodiment? How are the two related and why would that be significant for our humanness and spiritual vitality?”

James K. A. Smith: Yeah, well, great. The genetic heritage piece I haven’t thought a lot about, except for the time when I was with Francis Collins, with all of you. So I would say there is a sense in which our biology is part of the conditions of possibility for our histories. And I think it is entirely biblical to imagine much sort of fuzzier or at least integrated accounts of biology and spirituality, right. So I think accounting for that in some ways will be significant. I think for the most part what I’m interested in are the layers of history that are more nurture than nature, so to speak. But I also think that that distinction between the two is very unstable. So that’s a legitimate question.

The body piece, I think, is really crucial. You mentioned—didn’t you mention earlier, Cherie, the body keeps score? And— Yeah, so that, by the way, was entirely my experience in counseling and therapy. And our bodies are archives of a history of experience that we don’t always access with intellect. But it doesn’t mean that they don’t drive our habits of being in the world. It’s one of the reasons why the kind of reckoning that’s required with our histories kind of has to tap into that sort of visceral layer, right. By the way, on a collective and personal register, I think this is really one of the ways that we need to be thinking about racism and systemic and structural racism, because what we’re really talking about are ways of being that have been sort of encoded in our bodily registers and relationships. And so we need to reckon with that.

But this is also why I think Christian worship in its fullness—if you think of that as a sort of place where you reinhabit or rehearse God’s time and God’s story and are invited into— It’s one of the reasons I talk about the liturgical calendar as kind of a way of inhabiting time differently. It’s significant that there are such long histories of Christian liturgical spirituality that address that to the body. Right? So just think, a very obvious one is the season of Lent as a season of fasting, is a place to just see the intersection of soul and body, both being called into the story of Christ’s suffering and passion and resurrection. So I think that’s absolutely right, that we need to to be attuned to our bodies. 

Cherie Harder: So I’m also going to combine two questions that sort of at least somewhat relate to nostalgia. A question from Michael Lundy, who asked, “Do you see a link between sentimentality and idolatry?” And then a question from Greg Jennings, who’s quoting Bob Dylan. And Bob said, “‘Nostalgia is the death of the artist.’ Is that true of the Christian who wants to wear time well?”

James K. A. Smith: Great questions. Sentimentality and what was—?

Cherie Harder: Idolatry.

James K. A. Smith: And idolatry. Yes. I think so, in this sense: Look, I think most of our idolatries are not so much false beliefs as they are disordered loves, right? We’re clinging to things. It’s more a matter of how you are clinging to something. And I think the sentimentality and romanticism that characterizes nostalgia is a form of clinging to a past, usually a past that benefited me and mine. Right? There’s usually this desire to turn back the clock, sentimentally and romantically, to a time where I was in charge or my kind were in charge. I think everybody gets what we’re talking about. So I think that’s absolutely true.

Nostalgia and the artist. So, at Image we talk about— we want to sort of foster what we call the “archaic avant garde,” which is— sounds sexy, doesn’t it? What I mean is— so there’s a difference between nostalgically pining for the Renaissance over and over and over and over again versus gratefully receiving the artistic and literary heritage of the Christian tradition for the sake of making it new, making something, inventing something, creating something, pushing the envelope, getting out of the box. I think, sadly, too many Christian artists, Christian writers, are still sort of tempted by that more nostalgic reproduction of an artistic form. Whereas what really energizes me and what energizes us at Image is those people who are indebted to and gratefully receive the gifts of the tradition, but for the sake of a launch pad into doing something new and inventive that we haven’t even comprehended yet. It’s why I’m just a huge fan of contemporary art and I want to keep—of course, I go back and read Dostoyevsky—but I want to read the novel that’s coming out next week. And I want to see what we’re still inventing in the world.

Cherie Harder: Yeah, that’s great. So a question from Chelsea Bombino, and Chelsea asks, “How does the inhabiting of time relate to the inhabiting of space? Could there be a follow-up book on the elements of inhabiting of habits in both a particular time and a particular place?”

James K. A. Smith: Yeah, I— It’s funny, I get this question a bit. I always punt and just say this: that I feel like some of my friends have already written the books on place. So wasn’t Norman Weirsma just with you guys recently?

Cherie Harder: Not with us. Not in the past. Hopefully in the future.

James K. A. Smith: So my friend Norman Weirsma at Duke— I think Wendell Berry is kind of like the doyen of those writers who are attuned to place, geography, location. And so in that sense, I feel like I don’t want to veer into their lane. I think these things are probably inseparable in reality. It’s just that as we are reflecting on them, we can kind of like focus on one or the other a little bit more. I’m doing time. I think the other reason I felt compelled to tackle time and history is it felt like something that had been under-addressed in what we might call spiritual formation literature. So if you think of, like, kind of Dallas Willard and Tish Harrison Warren and Richard Foster and conversations like that, all of which to whom I’m indebted, I think just one thing that’s been sort of under-reflected upon has been this dynamic of time and temporality. And so I’m just trying to sort of contribute to the conversation in that way. 

Cherie Harder: So Hannah Denecky asks, “What does the humanity of Jesus tell us about temporality and mortality?”

James K. A. Smith: So the incarnation of God in Christ is the cataclysmic fulcrum of everything that we’re talking about here because while we’re emphasizing God’s steadfastness, God’s eternality, that God is the creator of time, of course, then what we know in Christ is that God subjects himself to time, right? Condescends to inhabit history. And is subjected to it in such a way that, as I think we mentioned, the resurrected Jesus bears the scars of his confrontation with the Roman Empire at the time. Right? So you see that God himself endures and undergoes history.

But the other thing that I think is—and we remember from the Book of Hebrews that the ascended Christ who bears those scars is now seated at the throne, at the right hand of the throne of God, and empathizes with us, sympathizes with us as creatures—and so I really do think that shapes our prayer life and the way we can bring things to God into that throne room of grace, because we know the Son is there advocating for us as one who has endured and experienced time and history. I think— I’m a philosopher, not a theologian, so I don’t know the details on this, but it seems to me as long as you have a body, you are experiencing time. I just think it’s kind of— And that Jesus— Let me put it this way: Jesus on the beach making breakfast and eating fish with the disciples means the resurrected body has digestion. And it seems to me digestion takes time. So I just think the depth of of God’s identification with time in Christ is precisely [by] what means that we are met by Emmanuel in such a powerful way.

Cherie Harder: That’s fascinating. So a question from Andre Motta. Andre asks, “You talk about your interest in the contemplative tradition in Christianity. The contemplative life is often deemed to be a quietist political posture, perhaps even apolitical or antipolitical. Is this accurate, or is it possible to understand and see the contemplative life as a form of political resistance, a form of life that’s responsive to our culture?”

James K. A. Smith: It’s so funny you— I don’t mean to sound obnoxious, but that’s literally what my editorial in the very next issue of Image is all about. So that’s great. So I have been very intrigued because I get it, right? It looks like the contemplative is the one who is retreating from the world, who’s withdrawing, which looks like a kind of social-political irresponsibility. If you read both Henri Nouwen and Thomas Merton, what you see very, very clearly articulated is that the goal of that sort of introspection and movement into contemplation is precisely so that you encounter your own humanity anew, which then engenders solidarity and compassion for the neighbor. So I actually think it’s a false dichotomy, and I suspect the questioner is suspicious in the same way. That— I think it’s a false dichotomy to imagine contemplation is antisocial or apolitical or withdrawal from responsibility. In fact, it might be the case that only to the extent that we are able to engage in this sort of contemplative awareness of God and humanity, that we will have the resources to truly understand and answer the call of solidarity with other human beings.

Cherie Harder: Interesting. So a question from Hilary Farley, who’s sort of asking where the rubber meets the road. She asks, “What is a general process for coming to terms with one’s own temporal distortion?”

James K. A. Smith: Yeah. Why do I always hate rubber-meets-the-road questions? Can we just, can we just like— we’re just— ruminate? Yeah. This is where I always disappoint people. I think—well, I’ll say a couple of things maybe. I think the rubber meets the road in the fact that there’s no quick way to this. There’s no “here’s the one thing I’m going to tell you to do.” I think the rubber hits the road in the sense that what you have to do now is start doing this kind of hard work of reckoning and reflecting and coming to grips with the fact that you are embedded in time, that you have a history, to start sort of investigating and taking that on. So I guess in that sense, I feel like that is hitting the road. It’s just the road is long.

The second thing I’ll say, though, is I do point to, as one example, the liturgical calendar of the Christian year. [It] is in some ways a kind of ancient device to invite us to kind of reset our clocks.

Cherie Harder: Yeah.

James K. A. Smith: You know, my wife and I go to this resort or this hotel on the shores of Lake Michigan on the very sort of Michigan’s West Coast in the summertime. And what’s funny is every once [in a while] there’s something funky that happens with cell phone signals where our phones and our watches keep bouncing back and forth between Central Time and Eastern Time. And I don’t know if something’s bouncing off the lake or what, but there’s times in which, like, we don’t know what time it is anymore because we don’t know which clock to trust. And you need to sort of— you need a standardized measure, right? In some ways, I would suggest that to embrace a spirituality that is shaped by the liturgical calendar—which, by the way, is just the life of Christ inhabited over and over and over again—that’s a little bit like finally having a clock, a calendar that you are sort of setting your watch to. And I think it transforms how you move in time. And maybe that’s a kind of practical place to start.

Cherie Harder: So we’ll take one more question. And this should be an easy one. A question from Deborah Sikira, who asks, “How did COVID change the nature of time for you, if at all?”

James K. A. Smith: Yeah, that’s great. Hi, Deborah. So I’ve been thinking about this a bit. Now, keep in mind, I’m an empty-nester. I’m a professor, so I don’t have a real job. This is going to sound silly, but obviously it was experienced as a slow-down. So the frenetic, frantic pace of kind of professional life slows down and, like probably a bunch of other 50-year-old people, all of a sudden—birds. I just lived my life for watching birds. And Deana got me this great bird feeder. It sits right outside. But I, honestly, I see it as a kind of like prelude or preamble to sort of being attuned to time in a new way. Because now you’re watching the seasons and the birds that are coming through and they weren’t here before. And where are we in the migratory state? To me it was a little bit like God giving a kind of natural sacrament to become attuned and attentive to creation in a new way. And I don’t want to lose it. So now I have like four bird feeders and I buy it in bulk. My neighborhood birds love me. I get the deluxe seed, they’re like—. I get eaten out of house and home by cardinals and wax wings.

Cherie Harder: That’s awesome. Well, Jamie, this has been fascinating and really fun. And in just a moment, we’re going to give you the last word. But before we do that, a few things just to share with each of you. First, immediately after we conclude here, we’ll be sending around an online feedback form and we’d really welcome your input. We read every one of these. We try to incorporate a lot of your suggestions and your comments to make these ever more valuable. We know that Jamie is one of the most requested speakers, so that has registered. So please do that. We’d love to hear from you all. And as a special incentive to filling out that feedback form, we will give you a code for a free download of the Trinity Forum Reading of your choice. There’s a few we would recommend to kind of go more deeply into some of the themes that we’ve discussed here, including Augustine’s “Confessions” with an introduction by Jamie himself. Other readings that we would particularly recommend include “Bulletins from Immortality,” the poems of Emily Dickinson; “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek” by Annie Dillard with an introduction by Tish Harrison Warren; and “Children of Light and Children of Darkness” by Reinhold Niebuhr.

In addition, we know that around 100 of you have signed up for breakout discussion groups, which will be happening immediately afterwards. If you want to get in on one of those and have not yet signed up, you still can. There should be a link in the chat feature, but those will be led by both Trinity Forum staff and good friends of ours, Bob Frayling and Chelsea Bombino. And we’ll get started shortly after we conclude here.

In addition, for everyone who registered, we will be sending around an email tomorrow with a link to a very lightly edited video of today’s Online Conversation, as well as a list of recommended readings and resources for those of you who want to go further. And we hope you’ll share today’s Online Conversation with your friends, family and use it to start very interesting conversations of your own on the big questions of life.

In addition, we’d love to invite each of you to join the Trinity Forum Society, which is the community of people who are interested in and want to further Trinity Forum’s mission of cultivating, curating, and disseminating the best of Christian thought leadership. There are several benefits of being a Trinity Forum Society member as well, including a subscription to our quarterly Readings, our daily list of “What We’re Reading” curated reading recommendations, and as a special incentive for those of you who join as members or with your gift of $100 or more, we will send you a signed copy of Jamie’s book, How to Inhabit Time. So hope that you will avail yourself of that opportunity and that we can welcome you into the Trinity Forum Society. 

A few upcoming events just to let everyone know about. We are in the midst of a new podcast season, “Reading and the Common Good,” and we’ll be releasing a new podcast in that series each week for the next five weeks. Our book club box has dropped for essentially functioning as a starter kit for those of you who are interested in starting your own reading group. And our next Online Conversation will be next month, October 21st, with Bonnie Christian on “Trust, Truth, and the Knowledge Crisis.” We’re announcing it here first. Invitations will go out on Monday and you can register now in the link provided in the chat feature.

Finally, as promised, Jamie, want to give you the last word.

James K. A. Smith: I actually want to send you all off with a prayer that I first heard prayed at a church actually there in D.C., Church of the Advent where Tommy Henson is rector. And this is a prayer that comes from the Anglican Church of Kenya, and I’ll read just the first bit of it:

“Oh, God of our ancestors, God of our people, before whose face the human generations pass away, 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.” 

Friends, whatever the fragments might be in your history, God is making a mosaic. Godspeed.

Cherie Harder: Jamie, thank you so much.