Tertullian is today most famous for saying “I believe because it is absurd.” But, as Abraham Lincoln reminds us, “not every quote you find on the Internet is true.” Australian professor Arthur Harrison traces that quote to Voltaire. Sigmund Freud cited the pseudo-Tertullian’s motto as evidence of religion’s infantile fear of the rational. Max Weber took Voltaire’s fabrication a step further, putting “Credo non quod, sed quia absurdum est”(I believe nothing except that which is absurd) into St. Augustine’s mouth.
The Son of God was crucified; I am not ashamed because men must needs be ashamed of it. And the Son of God died; it is by all means to be believed, because it is absurd. And He was buried, and rose again; the fact is certain, because it is impossible. But how will all this be true in Him, if He was not Himself true— if He really had not in Himself that which might be crucified, might die, might be buried, and might rise again?
Tradition holds Tertullian (160 – after 229) was born in Carthage to a Berber centurion, trained as a lawyer and converted to Christianity in his thirties. Tertullian’s writing shows a convert’s zeal, a prosecuting attorney’s thundering rage and a soldier’s love of discipline. He remains famous for his denunciations of various heresies and his defense of Christians against rumors of cannibalism, incest and other still-fashionable secret society atrocities. St. Augustine is one of Tertullian’s most famous admirers.
In this passage Tertullian aims his ire at Marcionism. Influenced by Zoroastrian and Gnostic ideas, Marcionites believed this world and everything in it was created by a sadistic Demiurge who chose the Jews as his special people. Jesus Christ was the son of a still greater God who was loving where the Demiurge was angry and who favored mercy where the Demiurge demanded punishment.
Marcion’s Invisible, Indescribable, Good God (aoratos akatanomastos agathos theos) wanted to rescue souls from the Demiurge’s filthy pit of suffering and misery. He would not entangle himself in matter to rescue us from matter: he would neither be pushed screaming and bloody from a womb nor perish moaning and bloody on a tree. What appeared to be an Incarnation was really a Manifestation. Christ’s preaching and his crucifixion were apparitions, illusions cast into this world to send an important message. They were symbols of a greater Truth, misunderstood by those still caught in the Demiurge’s snares. Marcionites rejected the Old Testament altogether: their Holy Scriptures consisted of “The Gospel of Christ” (an abridged version of Luke) and ten letters from Paul (our Pauline Epistles).
Marcionism was popular throughout North Africa and the Levant. Marcionites distanced themselves from Hebrew rituals and superstitions and focused on a sublime God greater than Abraham’s stern patriarch. In place of a Jewish criminal of dubious parentage Marcion provided a holy message delivered by a sacred messenger. Marcionite texts were circulated throughout the Empire: though he is still remembered as a heretic Marcion was one of the first Bishops to declare the Pauline letters part of Holy Scripture.
Tertullian responded to Marcion, and to other Gnostics, with a polemic entitled “On the Flesh of Christ.” He complained their holographic Jesus was not only false in substance but false in his teachings. If he was not born of flesh and did not die in flesh, then his Passion is reduced to a passion play.
Have you, then, cut away all sufferings from Christ, on the ground that, as a mere phantom, He was incapable of experiencing them? … Was not God really crucified? And, having been really crucified, did He not really die? And, having indeed really died, did He not really rise again? Falsely did Paul determine to know nothing among us but Jesus and Him crucified; (1 Corinthians 2:2) falsely has he impressed upon us that He was buried; falsely inculcated that He rose again. False, therefore, is our faith also. And all that we hope for from Christ will be a phantom. O you most infamous of men, who acquits of all guilt the murderers of God! For nothing did Christ suffer from them, if He really suffered nothing at all. Spare the whole world’s one only hope, you who are destroying the indispensable dishonour of our faith…
Marcion, you who tell us that Jesus comes only from the most excellent God, who is both simple and good? See how He rather cheats, and deceives, and juggles the eyes of all, and the senses of all, as well as their access to and contact with Him! You ought rather to have brought Christ down, not from heaven, but from some troop of mountebanks, not as God besides man, but simply as a man, a magician; not as the High Priest of our salvation, but as the conjurer in a show; not as the raiser of the dead, but as the misleader of the living, — except that, if He were a magician, He must have had a nativity!
Marcion hoped to purify Jesus by stripping away His human nature but produced only debasement. If Christ was not a man, then neither was He a god. Because Christ died, Tertullian believes Christ was born. Because Christ rose again, Tertullian believes Christ was the Son of God. Christ died a shameful death on a cross, but in so doing made the Crucifix a sign of triumph. Nearly a century after Tertullian’s death the Council of Nicea would proclaim:
We believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Only Begotten Son of God,
born of the Father before all ages.
God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God,
begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father;
through him all things were made.
For us men and for our salvation he came down from heaven,
and by the Holy Spirit was born of the Virgin Mary and became man.
Jesus was neither the first nor the last prospective messiah to die at Roman hands. Had the Apostles not seen Him after the Crucifixion, why would they promote such a crazy story? For Tertullian the story was plausible because nobody would create such a wildly unbelievable lie. (Many other Christian apologists have used this argument, notably C.S. Lewis and yr. humble narrator). This is not an airtight case and Tertullian pounded on the table a bit. But he also introduced some very interesting exhibits into the historical record. From Christianity’s earliest days there was an acknowledgement that Christianity made impossible claims, and a simultaneous demand that Christians accept them as fact.
For Catholics the Resurrection is a mysterium fidei, a Mystery of Faith. There are many truths which are incomprehensible or beyond our present understanding: we cannot simultaneously measure a particle’s speed and position. There are also truths which are unknowable: we cannot predict the weather outside our house six months from now. A Mystery of Faith is both of these because it is a supernatural truth which lies above our finite intelligence. These revealed truths cannot be proven by reason – but if these truths are from God, neither can they conflict entirely with reason.
If we accept an omnipotent Creator, we must also accept that He is capable of doing things we consider miraculous. We can argue about whether or not He chooses to do those things, or which unusual events are or not miraculous. But we cannot dispute that the Power which can create a universe could also fertilize an ovum or restore a corpse’s vital functions. These actions would be out of the ordinary. They would have been even more out of place in a world unfamiliar with surrogate motherhood and cardiopulmonary resuscitation. Such events would be a shocking aberration and a violation of our established laws of nature. They are not categorically impossible. And if our Creator so willed, they would be inevitable.
Today there is a general consensus that science explains the universe better than mere religion ever did. Science is certainly better at giving us precise distances and measurements. Science teaches us that 13.7 billion years ago (give or take a few millennia on either side), our space and time came into being with an enormous blast. As the conflagration cooled and the blast radiated outward matter clumped together to form galaxies and stars, including the sun our earth revolves around. The writers of Genesis were content to tell us all was formless and void, then God said “Let there be light.”
In 1927 Abbé Georges Lemaître examined the red shift of galactic light and concluded the universe was expanding. The Belgian priest calculated the rate at which distant galaxies were moving outward and arrived at a number which is today known as the Hubble-Lemaître Constant. He then ran those numbers backward and concluded that the universe was at one point much denser than it is now, and that all matter in the universe had once erupted from what he called a “Primeval Atom.”
Upon first encountering Lemaître’s ideas, Albert Einstein wrote back “your equations are correct but your physics are atrocious.” But after hearing Lemaître further explain his theories at a 1931 conference, Einstein exclaimed: “This is the most beautiful and satisfactory explanation of creation to which I have ever listened.” English astronomer Fred Boyle dismissed Lemaître’s ideas in favor of an eternal “Solid State” universe. Today that cosmology has been dismissed in favor of what Boyle jokingly called “a Big Bang theory.”
In a 1951 address Pope Pius IX claimed that Lemaître’s finding validated the Genesis narrative of creation. Lemaître was uncomfortable with this, and later spoke with the Pope about his fears of “concordism” – an effort to harmonize Scriptural and scientific teachings and to claim that contemporary scientific advancements were foretold in Scripture. For Lemaître God had provided through revelation everything we needed for salvation. He expected us to use our talents and our reason to uncover all other secrets. As Lemaître put it:
Once you realize that the Bible does not purport to be a textbook of science, the old controversy between religion and science vanishes … The doctrine of the Trinity is much more abstruse than anything in relativity or quantum mechanics; but, being necessary for salvation, the doctrine is stated in the Bible. If the theory of relativity had also been necessary for salvation, it would have been revealed to Saint Paul or to Moses.
Lemaître was not so much concerned with keeping religion out of science as with keeping science out of religion. The scientific approach demands data which can be weighed, measured and quantified. It demands experiments which can be repeated in a laboratory. Lemaître rejected any approach which reduced God to an experimental subject. He saw nothing to be gained by putting God on a dissecting table or in examining the Scriptures for evidence the Prophets had visions of television, airplanes or nuclear weapons.
Lemaître’s calculations can take us to the moment when a primal point explodes. They cannot tell us how that primal point came into being or why that great blast became our universe. We have learned a great deal about the forces which shape creation at the smallest and largest levels. All that data cannot tell us whether those forces were made as part of a Creation or whether they are the only thing shuffling the waves and particles. We are left to make that decision for ourselves. And no matter how we decide, we will find ourselves facing absurdity.