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Testing Our Faith

By Tony Snow

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The Standard of London, in a fit of perversity, has asked key public figures in England whether they believe Jesus literally rose from the dead. This produced answers that ranged from lyrical to disgusting to hilarious.

A couple of well-known prelates dodged the question, for instance, and the press office at 10 Downing St. informed the paper that Prime Minister Tony Blair, a serial avower of his faith, would not answer such questions.

Such is the challenge of faith in a roiled world. Easter is the most extraordinary of religious holidays because it dares believers to step up and embrace the impossible: the declaration that Jesus of Nazareth died, was buried and rose on the third day in accordance with the scriptures.

This proclamation admits of no middle ground. You can't argue, as have some theologians and Gnostics, that Jesus died "metaphorically" or that his death merely served to liberate his spirit from the coarse confines of the material world.

Jesus shut off those lines when he predicted his own death and resurrection -- a fact that prompted G.K. Chesterton to observe that the Christ was either a liar, a lunatic or the Lord. It may be possible to half-believe in some creeds, but not this one: Either you're in or out; either Easter changed history, or Jesus was just another dust-coated Levantine huckster.

Such a stark challenge has a delicious way of pinning Modernity to the wall. If there is a defining characteristic to the age, it is petulant hubris. We believe in miracle diets, but not miracles; politicians declare their faith in the perfectibility of government, but not the perfection of the Almighty.

We take pride in our refusal to believe in things we cannot see, touch or measure. We harrumph and complain when clerics tell us that free will does not confer upon us a measure of omnipotence.

Europe has fallen more deeply for this hooey than we have, but the contagion has begun to spread. We express our vanity through such things as the self-help movement, which in its endless lose-weight, have-sex, purge-guilt, be-happy manifestations promises that one doesn't need God. The Self can do it all. Find a diet. Buy new clothes. Exercise. And bingo! Happiness (along with a trim waistline and a heart-shredding sex life) is yours. Who needs resurrection when you've got the South Beach diet?

Over time, however, the self-improvement movement manages only to mangle the brittle psyches of the poor saps who keep Oprah and the how-to authors in business. The fads come and go, but the anomie persists. Not even firm-bellied swingers can fend off the yearning for something better and the quiet suspicion that somewhere beyond the Self lies something more liberating and refined -- the Truth.

This is where Easter enters the picture again. The story of Easter is one of renewal against all rules and odds. It describes the life of an unknown man who preached in a forlorn and forgotten corner of the globe, who lived humbly and died in humiliation, whose votaries fought with words and not swords, and who somehow became the source of the world's greatest and most influential religion. Death begat life, and life begat hope, and hope begat liberation.

Even unbelievers must concede the tale has an attractive ring to it. We all hate the idea of being constrained by someone else's idea of the possible, and we all want immortality. But there's something more at work: We all believe in the miraculous -- in events and achievements that not only beggar the imagination, but defy the boundaries of reason.

Love is the obvious example. You can't measure it. You can't see it. You can't manufacture it. And you can't live without it. Or how about prayer? Doctors swear by it. And even those who have tried to debunk it through scholarship have found themselves apologizing that even seemingly damning results seem downright unsatisfying.

The key to Easter is this: It is too preposterous, too outrageous, too incredible not to be true, and not to be the key to a much larger truth.

While Christians celebrate, recipients of the Standard poll wriggle and complain. Most of us hate being forced to think about things that really matter -- such as whether God or Christ exist. We would much rather cavil over Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, or the advisability of permitting illegal aliens to petition for citizenship ... anything but the ultimate question.

But the season won't let us. And that, in itself, is akin to a miracle.

Copyright 2006 Creators Syndicate

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