Conspicuous absences

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Book Review
The Absent Christ: An Anabaptist Theology of the Empty Tomb.
Justin Heinzekehr. Volume 12 of the C. Henry Smith Series, Cascadia Publishing House, 2019, 160 pages.

Maxwell Kennel | Special to Canadian Mennonite
"[T]he figure of the absent Christ is not invoked pessimistically with images of abandonment, but instead it is interpreted in continuity with the peaceful, non-possessive and uncoercive character of Jesus."

The Absent Christ is a clearly written and compelling exploration of Anabaptist-Mennonite theology that engages with both historical Anabaptist sources and contemporary political concerns, in order to advance a constructive argument centred on the figure of the empty tomb.

Accessible to a wide readership without compromising its complexity, The Absent Christ argues for a distinctive way of theologizing within the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition that prefers the creative openness of absence to the confident assertion of presence. Like the medieval mystics, Heinzekehr recognizes that an image like the empty tomb opens up more possibilities for ethical and faithful living than the presence of an authoritative doctrine that demands obedience and submission.

The first three chapters develop this framework in which an image from the gospels is brought into conversation with contemporary philosophers and theologians, and the fourth chapter consolidates the author’s unique paradigm by bringing Mennonite thinking into contact with the study of metaphysics (which asks questions about ultimate reality, meaning and the human place in the cosmos).

Here the figure of the absent Christ is not invoked pessimistically with images of abandonment, but instead it is interpreted in continuity with the peaceful, non-possessive and uncoercive character of Jesus. Rather than remaining present in order to guarantee and ensure a singular vision for his followers, Christ’s absence becomes a vehicle for understanding salvation and Christian life in communal and relational terms.

Instead of presenting an abstract and universal metaphysics, Heinzekehr sees in the empty tomb the possibility of a “micro-metaphysics” that attends to the outliers and outsiders who are ignored by systematic thinking and confidence in the unity of the church. He writes that “the problem is that theology must always begin without Jesus,” emphasizing that “there is no uncontroversial portrait of Jesus.”

Rather than simple confidence in our ability to capture and preserve the integrity of the “real” Jesus, Heinzekehr calls his readers to honesty about the simple fact that no uniform agreement about Jesus is possible, and neither is it desirable. Guided by Anabaptist-Mennonite values, like the rejection of coercive attempts to unify diverse people, Heinzekehr critiques nationalism, martyr narratives and the John Howard Yoder legacy, all in order to open the discourse on Mennonite thinking to the wide world outside its bounds. 

The latter chapters apply Heinzekehr’s unique perspective to political, ecological and pacifist questions, taking his metaphysics and showing how it can have real consequences for those who might adopt it.

Overall, Heinzekehr’s work is oriented around the notion that difference—whether it is found in different people or perspectives—is not automatically dangerous or threatening. Rather than anxiously policing the boundaries of denominations or academic disciplines, his work is inspiring in its ability to positively critique the distortions that can result from our desires for safety, security and certainty. 

Maxwell Kennel is a doctoral candidate in the Religious Studies Department at McMaster University, Hamilton, Ont. His dissertation is on violence, Mennonites and metaphysics.

Further reading from our Spring 2020 Focus on Books & Resources:
A story that ‘wanted to be told’
Updated history of ‘Mennonites in Canada’ commissioned
Intriguing novel explores family trauma
Classics of the Radical Reformation series relaunched
Spring 2020 List of Books & Resources

"[T]he figure of the absent Christ is not invoked pessimistically with images of abandonment, but instead it is interpreted in continuity with the peaceful, non-possessive and uncoercive character of Jesus."

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