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  • The Emptied Christ of Philippians: Mahayana Meditations by John P. Keenan
  • Paul Knitter
John P. Keenan, The Emptied Christ of Philippians: Mahayana Meditations. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2015. Pp. 342. $40.00, paper.

If comparative theology makes bold promises about how it can enliven Christian self-understanding, Keenan, a long-time and well-published practitioner of said theology, shows again that those promises can be realized—and richly so. Applying the methodology of what he calls "interfaith theology" (p. xv), Keenan chooses the philosophy of Mahayana Buddhism, in place of traditional Greek ontology, as his new "handmaiden" or "hermeneutic guide" to unpack what was so foreign to the Greeks: kenosis—the focal category by which Paul and his Philippian community articulated what it meant to be a Jesus-follower (pp. 170–171).

Following his Mahayana guide, as well as listening carefully to contemporary Pauline exegetes, Keenan shows convincingly that the life and self-understanding of Paul and the Philippians were grounded in a mystical experience of "being in Christ," of "putting on the mind of Christ"—of oneness with a self-emptied, risen Christ who is "supplied by the Spirit" (pp. 92–93, and 168). From a Mahayana perspective, "To be in Christ is not to nurture an imagined relationship with the man Jesus, but rather to abide in the wisdom-mind of Christ" (p. 38; also see p. 116). More explicitly, "The hymn of the empty Christ . . . empties the historical character of Jesus" (p. 172), which is why, "in Philippians, the very life of Christ expands beyond the historical Jesus to become the life of Paul and of the communities of faith" (p. 97). This Christ is "indeed the flesh-and-blood Jesus of Nazareth, but no longer restricted to his historical presence as still remembered by some in Paul's day or as sought by scholars in our day" (p. 239).

From this pivotal identification with the Christ whose "very being is emptying" (p. 173), Keenan goes on to hear Paul with Mahayana ears, as it were, and to offer what results as a reconstruction of Christian doctrine, as follows.

On God: Keenan holds that "Paul calls into question not only his 'I' but also the object of a God 'out there' whom he might love" (p. 57). For Paul, therefore, God is "not a center of self-consciousness" or a "sovereign controller of the universe," but, rather, God is "the presence that encompasses us often in its absence, transcending the polarity of subject-object discrimination" (pp. 135 and 176).

On eschatology: Connecting the coming "day of Christ Jesus" with Mahayana's calls to strive "without ever reaching any final point" (p. 301), Keenan [End Page 346] suggests that the eschaton is "not a definite point of time when Christ will appear . . . not a moment in linear time." Rather, "Awaiting the day of the Lord describes an always present-mind . . . End-time living is a way of living the now time" (pp. 50–51, and 68).

On liberation theology: From a Buddhist perspective, Paul "was no advocate of opposing the social and cultural norms of his time" (p. 81). The emptied Christ that he preached was "not a political or social messiah who might deliver Israel from its Roman occupation" but, rather, "the Christ who delivers the Philippians from their self-enclosed and dead-end lives" (p. 40). Only if personally so transformed can they then strive "to create a just and peace-abiding world without accommodating to the power of fixations of some selves over other selves" (p. 260).

In content and expression, this book both engages academically and at the same time inspires profoundly. Its subtitle is entirely appropriate, for these are meditations. Keenan once again proves himself to be both scholar and spiritual teacher.

Paul Knitter
Union Theological Seminary, New York, NY


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pp. 346-347
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