Searching for God

Issue 2020, vol. 74

Review of Justin Heinzekehr, The Absent Christ: An Anabaptist Theology of the Empty Tomb (Cascadia Publishing, 2019)

“Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him” (Mark 15:6b, NRSV). This is what a young man dressed in white told a group of women who came to Jesus’ tomb on Easter morning. For the intervening 2,000 years, followers of Christ have pointed to this moment as central to their movement. But Justin Heinzekehr, in his new book The Absent Christ, shifts our attention squarely onto the phrase “he is not here.” For all the Christian talk of Christ being with us, Heinzekehr says, a foundational experience for Christians is Christ’s absence, both on that Easter morning and in our daily lives. He is not here. The book unfolds in three sections, developing the sources and implications of this point historically, metaphysically and ethically.

The biblical and historical portion of the book begins by challenging the reader’s access to Christ. It is a commonplace for Christians, and often especially Anabaptists, to say that theology begins with Christ. Heinzekehr turns that around, and asserts that “the problem is that theology must always begin without Christ” (31). What he means by this is that we do not have direct access to the historical Jesus – we can’t speak to a human leader and be under his authority. We do hear from Jesus in the Gospels, but there are four, each with a different interpretation of what Jesus was about. This is not a problem, says the author, but rather a central feature of the Christian tradition. “What the Gospels have in common is their initiative to create meaning in the face of the absence of the original religious authority (Jesus the human)” (32). The Gospels, then, are a paradigm for all Christian theology. They bear the “trace of Jesus’ absence.” The tomb’s emptiness is what launches and motivates the Christian movement.

The implication of this emptiness is its decentralization of authority and sacredness. In being absent, Jesus vacates the “authority-space.” “It is precisely this space that allows for the formation of a community that is empowered to interpret truth in its own context, out of a response to the needs that it encounters both within and outside its own borders” (43). The church has often tended toward re-centralizing authority, it is true. But the absence of Christ empowers anti-establishment movements, working against the abuses that come with the domestication of Christ’s presence.

At this point, the author discusses the Radical Reformation and its relationship with other reform movements, centered on the sacraments, especially the Eucharist or Lord’s Supper. The sacraments were vehicles for the many religious and political debates during the Reformation. The traditional Roman Catholic teaching is that the Eucharist is the “real presence of Christ,” and Heinzekehr points to the shift away from this understanding as one way of pointing toward the absent Christ. He quotes Anabaptist theologian Balthasar Hubmaier, who says plainly that “Christ is not present” in the Lord’s Supper. It is a memorial, rather, and a community would not need a memorial if Christ were present.

The discussion goes deeper than this, but the implications are drawn out: for Hubmaier, Christ is not found in the elements of the Supper, but in the community that joins in the Supper together. The Christian commits themself to ethical relationships with the “other.” Even more, the “presence of Christ” is to be found in the other. This Anabaptist ethical perspective is said to spring from Christ’s absence.

The second section of the book develops the theology and metaphysics of the empty tomb. These two chapters are the most difficult reading, introducing ideas that would be new to many readers and attempting to express them in limited space. Heinzekehr helps the reader by providing concrete case studies well-known to many Mennonites of European heritage: the story of Dirk Willems, and the failure of communitarian ethics as advanced by John Howard Yoder.

In this section, the focus is on shifting our understanding of self and world from static “being” (associated with presence) to dynamic “becoming” (associated with absence). The self is conceived not as a static identity, but as one given shape through ongoing relationships with others. Likewise, the world is constituted by ongoing events, understood as the relations between things, rather than by the substance of things themselves.

In developing the idea of self-identity, Heinzekehr points out that God’s “otherness” always challenges settled identities, showing and creating gaps in the identity that is expressed. When Dirk Willems saved the life of his pursuer, he displayed an awareness of divinity in the needy other – even though he himself had been in the role of the “needy other” just seconds before. Heinzekehr says, “The empty tomb has two theological implications: that God cannot be fixed or possessed by any specific figure – and that the way that God fluctuates with respect to the material world corresponds inversely to relations of identity and power” (66). Identity and power structures define the world around us, making manifest what is “present.” If God is otherness and absence, however, God is to be found in the gaps in identity and power structures.

We then turn to metaphysics – specifically, the metaphysics of process theology. In this understanding, God is not found in what “is,” but rather lures or entices the world toward God’s intention. This, however, means that God must always work in relation to concrete realities and events as they unfold in history. This implies that God is, in some sense, always withdrawing, allowing communities the space to be drawn into the future space provided.

Heinzekehr helpfully explains what this might mean in our churches: “[I]t helps guard against possible abuses of communitarian ethics” (81). He invokes the abuse perpetrated by John Howard Yoder as an example. Yoder believed that if each member of the community was allowed to speak, the will of God would be revealed. Yet that approach allowed Yoder’s abuse to continue. How? “The terms of discourse tend to privilege certain voices and silence others… [W]e need to pay more attention to what cannot be voiced in a particular framework rather than the consensus that occurs within that framework” (82). God is not in what is present, but invites us to consider what is absent. God draws us toward that absence.

The final portion of the book considers three areas of ethics in which to apply the logic of the empty tomb: political theology, environmental ethics, and nonviolence.

In political theology, the conversation centers on “sovereignty,” with “the sovereign” being that which can demand loyalty and sacrifice. Christ’s sovereignty is said to be a decentralized one. We meet the sovereign Christ, and are asked to sacrifice – not within our communities, but when we cross social boundaries.

In environmental ethics, Heinzekehr again refers to Hubmaier’s theology of the Eucharist, and suggests that we do eco-theology through attention to our ethical relationships with the earth itself. This is opposed to a human-centered concept of nature or a romantic idealization of nature.

In the final chapter, on nonviolence, Heinzekehr develops the idea of constructing self-identity as map-making. A map-maker must always make interpretive decisions about what details to include and how to present them. These choices are always to make a particular point; the reality of these choices being made is that something is always left out. If Christ is absent, we find him only in those gaps in our map. Our relations with others reveal what our maps leave out, and the need for this ongoing, dynamic process is precisely what requires our commitment to nonviolence.

This book is a creative project, and one that sparks considerable imagination in the reader. It is a shock for a theologian to insist on Christ’s absence as a theological principle, given how much theology is based on Christ being “with us.” We know that Jesus is not here; it seems strange that we would shy away from that fact.

As a pastor, I often find myself thinking, “Does this preach well?” Though I am often not sure how any one idea would make it into a sermon, the project as a whole certainly serves to humble the preacher. I will not be so quick to proclaim Christ’s presence in the community. I will have to truly consider what it is I mean by that.

Some especially helpful discussions in this book were about church and community polity, as well as some of the author’s most incisive commentary. In a community that values consensus decision-making, Heinzekehr counters by saying: “To recognize Christ as omni-absent is to recognize that the consensus of a community – that upon which everyone can agree – only captures what is irrelevant to that community.” Christ is absent, not just in fact but in principle. This has the power to transform theological thinking.

At the same time, a strength of this book is its resonance within the Anabaptist tradition. The author admits that he would not find full agreement from the early Anabaptists, not least because he draws on the work of modern and postmodern thinkers in his theology. Yet he continually draws attention to the intersection of Anabaptist theology and ethics with the ideas being developed. This project is a valuable contribution to the expression of Anabaptism in a postmodern world.

The book is a revised doctoral dissertation, and it shows. A great amount of work went into synthesizing and condensing these ideas into a seven-chapter book. The result is that it is sometimes a slow read, not suitable for your average Sunday school class. In addition, at this scale, some clarity is lost. Some of the author’s ideas could have benefited from more definition: for example, he speaks at different moments of the absent God, the absent Christ and Jesus as absent. How these are related, identified or distinguished would be useful to develop further. Put another way, a stronger link could be made between “Christ’s absence” on the one hand and “God as otherness” on the other. Significantly, in all the discussion of Christ and God, the Holy Spirit makes few appearances. Jesus promised the ongoing presence of the Spirit, and this reflection on the “absent Christ” could benefit from a more robust pneumatology.

The Absent Christ is a transformative reflection on Christian life as relationships and events, guided and enticed by the absence of God. Our search for God is never finished, and requires an ongoing, dynamic commitment to sacrificial relationships and continual reevaluation of power and identity. As we journey to Christ, we can expect to find an emptiness – the emptiness of the tomb on Easter morning. Yet that emptiness is not the end of our search, but an invitation, in the words of Mark’s Gospel, to “go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you” (Mark 16:7). Finding absence, we turn to the communities and relationships that form our identities. There we will meet Christ once again.