Was I comfortable with the topic? the prospective client on the other end of the video call wanted to know.
I had done some initial reading, and the subject – a spiritual movement I’ll refer to as Antonism – didn’t appear to be harmful. No one seemed to be coming to harm, doing anything hazardous, being defrauded of their money, or avoiding appropriate medical or professional treatment.
Since Antonism met that minimum requirement, and my interest in getting paid gave me a reason to get comfortable with the topic, I told the client: I have my own tradition of spirituality, which at times has been subject to falsehood or distortion; just as I want my own tradition to be represented fairly and sympathetically, I would strive to do the same for his.
So I was selected to translate a book about Anton, a faith healer who is little known in the U.S. but has an active following in Tyrol and surrounding areas, written by a devotee. (Names have been changed. The actual Anton would deny that either “faith” or “healing” are the right words to describe his activity. I’m using them only to provide a general sense of the topic.)
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The issues raised by translating a book about Antonism weren’t due to how foreign the movement was, but to how familiar it seemed at times. Anton and his followers have been subject to various forms of psychological or New Age esoteric analysis. The author of the manuscript I was translating was firmly in the camp of respectable academic psychology, but was also willing to consider analyses from the boundaries of science or beyond them and, I suspect, hopeful that explanations from beyond the realm of today’s naturalistic science would ultimately prove correct. The difficulty of balancing a craving for scientific respectability with a longing for the supernatural is something I know well.
Much of the material I was translating wouldn’t have been out of place in a typical Fast Sunday testimony meeting. People with medical issues or other life crises had come to Anton for help, eventually felt they had received aid and then expressed their gratitude and conviction in oral or written form.
What should I make of these reports? Was it all just coincidence or motivated reasoning? That’s not what I think of my own miracles, so it wouldn’t be fair for me to simply dismiss reports from Antonists as such. Besides, the placebo effect is quite real; if people have discovered an effective placebo in Anton, or a way to smooth out some of the knots in their psychology, I’m only happy for them. Perhaps some of the people who join me on Sundays have found their own placebo or an effective form of therapy, and I’m happy to have them there with me. And beyond mere placebos, the light of Christ is given to all, and if a healing session with Anton is how people access it, I won’t stand in their way.
Which poses the question: if people are finding happiness in Antonism, what do we have to offer?
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I don’t believe the hypothesis that Jesus was a Jewish faith healer who was subsequently mythologized by his followers, but I have to admit there are ready parallels to be found in the emerging Antonism movement. Although Anton has made few public statements, there is a growing corpus of his sayings published by friends and insiders, and they borrow and expand on each other as eagerly as the gospels of Matthew and Luke. There is an ambiguous relationship between Anton and a predecessor eerily similar to that of Jesus and John the Baptist, and one can even discern the formation of something like a holy family.
Antonism as it exists today is still an incipient faith. Antonism has no doctrine. Followers of Anton are just now beginning to adopt their first external symbols. Their religious practice as such seems to consist of making pilgrimages to meet Anton in person, consuming Anton-related media, and composing and sharing testimonials of Anton’s efficacy. They engage in informal proselytism by inviting others to attend a meeting or view media with them. Members of our own church could probably fulfill all their missionary goals by doing no more than this.
Devotees of Antonism are firmly post-Christian – not in the sense that they have left or rejected Christianity (Antonists aren’t in the habit of rejecting anything at all), but by inhabiting a post-Christian world. Biblical citations and Christian ideas float around in their thought processes, unattached to a text or institution and unrecognized as scriptural citations. Beyond health problems, the problems they seek aid for are primarily the travails of 21st-century civilization: dysfunctional relationships, burnout, frustration, substance abuse. What they seek from Anton is unspecified help that will enable them to feel happy. Which is, again, not a misplaced goal in itself. Man is that he might have joy, and the kingdom is within you.
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While Antonism seems familiar in some ways for what it offers, eventually I couldn’t overlook what it still lacks. It offers no cosmology and leaves the purpose of life up to each individual to decide for themselves. It has no requirements and entails no obligations. It has no aspiration to build a community. Above all, it sits out the grappling match with sin, evil and death. Antonism might be described as amoral therapeutic agnosticism: the goal is happiness for all, no strings attached, and no claims about what’s at the other end of the string. It offers no provision for when we should feel unhappy, ashamed or tormented by the memory of things we’ve done, or what to do about it.
A missionary-minded church like our own could learn quite a bit from Antonism, as the people who find their way to Anton in their search for happiness are probably not unlike the people who are open to meeting with our missionaries or reading the Book of Mormon. But for all its familiarity and even utility, Antonism ultimately holds little attraction for me because what I’m looking for are things it has no interest in, and answers to questions it doesn’t ask.