Tertullian (Quintus Septimus Florens Tertullianus, c. 155 AD–c. 225 AD) was a quipster who might have enjoyed a Henny Youngman–type success had he been born about eighteen centuries later. The Henny Youngman of more recent fame became the king of one-liners: he concentrated on human incongruences for the sake of human humor. On the contrary, Tertullian focused exclusively on incongruences in the realm of divine humor, better known as irony.
That is to say, as an early Christian theologian, teacher, and writer, Tertullian’s quill spewed forth countless one-liners, albeit one-liners of a theological nature and only accidentally humorous in their intent. Humor, however, seems to demand equal or even special consideration in Tertullian’s world of philosophical and theological ruminations. It seems that humor and irony infuse his writings despite his intent.
The reason for digging up Tertullian (figuratively of course) is to examine one of his most famous axioms—if in fact it was really his, and if the literal translation of the Old Latin attributed to him means what ultimately became called “Tertullian’s Rule,” which has been assigned quasi-official certification as his peculiar take on theology. Or so it seems.
So here it is: “Prorsus credibile est, quia ineptum est.”
Simple Latin words, right? Easily translatable, yes? Yet there are several possible translations with nuanced meanings, unfortunately!
We’ll stick with the simplest.
“It is to be believed because it is absurd.”
Wow! That is one powerful statement. Not that it’s true; it’s just that it seems self-contradictory and preposterous in its literal essence.
If we were to posit a few of Christianity’s “odd” dogmas, such as impregnation by divine spirit; virgin birth; water-walking; changing water into wine; numerous magical healings (alas, never a Scriptural mention of any amputee who got his leg back); raising dead bodies to life; promised bodily resurrection after death; and on and on … one is forced to consider the possibility, the probability, and even the likelihood that credulity and gullibility currently captivate and control the minds and hearts of Tertullian’s heirs, just as they affected his contemporaries.
Irony is mostly hidden from our consciousness, so we easily fall prey to its unseen and insidious influences. Tertullian’s teachings were often quite ironic, but they enjoyed popular approval in their day. Ultimately, some of his views were deemed heretical. But in those days and possibly to this day, nobody knew what might be heretical until he or she risked expressing theological views publicly. Then, suddenly and surprisingly, those expressed views were deemed to be contrary to the traditional understanding of “revealed truth.” Revealed truth? What is that exactly?
Au contraire, the application of logic and rationality ought to provide humanity with a natural wisdom by which we can separate truth from fiction, fact from myth, wishful thinking from reality as it is.
Tertullian could never have expected that so many centuries after his terrestrial life, he’d exert so powerful an influence in today’s politics, theology, morality, and perception of reality. Eventually he was “outed” as a Montanist heretic. He may have entertained a doubt or two. Was he insulted by his ouster or flattered by it?
We are now in the new age of Tertullian. Our intellectual guideline: “It is preposterous, so it must be true.”
Virtually every issue of importance comes into play here.
Climate change, denied by half of America’s populace, may be a more imminent danger than a nuclear arms race.
Easy access to all sorts of guns is an unchallenged and unchallengeable recipe for continued frequency of massive bloodletting, all in the name of a distorted interpretation of the Second Amendment.
A virulent antiscience mindset displayed by leading politicians and anti-intellectualism in general are dissolving the public’s connection to and respect for proven scientific facts … and for truth itself.
Conspicuous wealth is the be-all and end-all, the very purpose of human life, so anything that adds to the bottom line is not only acceptable but to be praised as virtuous.
Mediocrity in intellectual domains, in manners, in speech, in thinking, in writing, in virtually every area of human endeavor is to be desired and pursued to avoid that dreadful moniker “elitist.”
The apotheosis of children into infallible idols and the admiration of the “simplest” of minds reward the most loathsome of individuals with the highest office in the land.
In a few words, the preposterousness that Tertullian so cherished has been achieved in our own time.