Tuesday, November 13, 2007

AD or CE?

How many of you out there who love our Lord and look to the Incarnation as the center of human history have been outraged by the sly and insidious substitution of C.E. and B.C.E. (Common Era and Before Common Era) in place of the traditional B.C. and A.D. (Before Christ and Anno Domini)? The CE/BCE usage is getting ever more common in secular circles and it is even gaining ground among Christians for some reason I can't fathom.

Ostensibly, the rationale for preferring CE/BCE is that it does not have the religious overtones that BC/AD does (another premise is that we cannot be certain that Christ actually was born in 1 AD, but I think this is irrelevant). This is a shallow argument that does nothing to get to the heart of the matter. Just substituting one set of letters for another makes no sense. The divison between BC and AD occurs in the transfer of the year from 1 BC to 1 AD (there being no year 0 ). If we just change the letters to BCE/CE, we may have changed what the abbreviations are, but we are still drawing attention to a split in history that occured in the 27th year of the reign of Augustus. What else of note happened in that year to merit history being split in two? Well, Tiberius put down a revolt in Germania. Silk made its first appearance in Rome. Gaius Caesar and L. Aemelius Paulus are appointed consuls, and Areius Paianeius became archon in Athens. Emperor Ping of the Han came to power in China, and Ovid composed the Metamorphoses. Nothing else of any global or cosmic significance occurred that year, only the birth of Christ. Even if we mean "Common Era" by CE, we are still drawing attention to the same single year and thus to the same pivotal event.

In his most recent E-letter, Karl Keating quotes a book, "History of Time" by Leofranc Holford-Strevens, in which the arguments in favor of BC/AD (and the reasons why BCE/CE is stupid and should be rejected by all Catholics) are set forth. I thought it worth requoting the entire article here. Enjoy.

The night before last I finished a little book titled "The History of Time." The author is Leofranc Holford-Strevens, and the book is part of the "Very Short Introduction" series published by Oxford University Press. "The History of Time" discusses how our notions of hours, days, and years developed, and it goes into considerable (and, to me, often unfollowable) detail about variants in calendars over the centuries: such commonplaces as the Metonic cycle used in Alexandrian and Western Easter tables, intercalary weeks, epacts, epagomenal days, indictions, and the non-accession-year system.

I learned that January was chosen as the first month of the year (the position had been held by March for a long time) because it was named after Janus, the Roman god who faced forwards and backwards, looking toward the upcoming year and back at the year just ended. I learned that not until Britain adopted the New Style calendar in 1752 did the English New Year shift from March 25 to January 1.

I learned that some early Christians kept a fixed date for Easter, either March 25 or April 6, even if that meant Easter fell other than on Sunday. And I learned that, not to be outdone, in 1926 the League of Nations recommended that Easter be observed on the Sunday after the second Saturday in April. The proposal went nowhere.

All in all, "The History of Time" is an informative if, for the calendar-impaired, often a confusing book. Near the end the author brings up something he mentions otherwise only in his preface. It is something that bothers me and perhaps bothers you: the use of C.E. in place of A.D. and of B.C.E. in place of B.C.

In more and more publications we're seeing the traditional terms A.D. (Anno Domini = Year of the Lord) and B.C. (Before Christ) being dropped in favor of C.E. (Common Era) and B.C.E. (Before the Common Era).

Here is what Holford-Strevens notes about the system used to refer to the time line:

"The Christian era is too well established to be challenged for its religious origin; in China, indeed, where Christianity has never been more than a minority religion, it was made official by the anti-religious Communists. However, the name has come under attack; ... amongst English-speakers the term 'Common Era', already standard in Jewish usage ... has become widespread in American academic writing."

And not just in academic writing. I'm seeing C.E. and B.C.E. used more and more widely. But to continue:

"Even some Christians have accepted it, whether in an anti-proselytizing spirit or because there are no grounds for believing the era's epoch to be the true date of the event that it commemorates."

Let me recapitulate. A.D. and B.C. are being dropped by some Christians, for two reasons. Some are concerned that by insisting on the traditional usage, they might be perceived as proselytizing, and they think everyone should use a "neutral" designation for years. This strikes me as misplaced courtesy.

If the Incarnation really happened, then it was the most momentous event of all time, far more important than any emperor's reign, the establishment of any polity, or the occurrence of any battle. Ontologically, nothing else could come close to the Incarnation in importance for the human race. Such an event would be a worthy--in fact, the most worthy--demarcation of human history: Before Incarnation, After Incarnation.

This would be true whether or not most people living today believed it to have occurred. Even if Christians were an infinitesimal minority of the world's population, rather than a quarter or so of it, the Incarnation would be the most important event that ever happened. To say so publicly is not proselytizing.

So I think the concern about proselytizing is misplaced. So too for the concern about whether ancient calculations were spot on or not. Most scholars say that Christ was born probably not at the end of 1 B.C. but around 6 B.C. I won't discuss now the reasons for that conclusion, but, if true, it would mean that our dating system is off by about five years and that A.D. 2007 really ought to be A.D. 2012. But so what? In this matter, an approximation is sufficient. We cannot know with certainty the year of Christ's birth, since ancient records are sparse. Should we therefore say that we can't construct our calendar around his birth? This would be taking Heisenberg's uncertainty principle to a ludicrous point.

Let me go back to Holford-Strevens' paragraph. We left off here:

"Even some Christians have accepted it, whether in an anti-proselytizing spirit or because there are no grounds for believing the era's epoch to be the true date of the event that it commemorates. Nevertheless, if it does not commemorate the birth of Christ, it has no business to exist at all, for no other event of world-historical significance took place in either 1 B.C. or A.D. 1."

Let me unpack that for you. The author says that if the dating system we use doesn't commemorate Christ's birth, then it makes no sense to use this particular system at all. Changing the designations from B.C. and A.D. to B.C.E. and C.E. reduces to a sleight of hand. After all, what is the "Common Era" based on? On the birth of Christ and on nothing else. If on the birth of Christ, then why not say so candidly? You can say so even if you aren't a Christian. You don't have to believe in Christ's divinity to believe that he was born at a certain time (even if we can't pinpoint that time). You don't have to be a follower of his to acknowledge that, historically, many people have been followers and that our modern civilization largely is a product of what those people believed and did. You even could be an outright opponent of Christianity and still admit that the religion you excoriate has been more important in the history of the world than has any other institution and that that fact alone is sufficient reason to based a calendar around its Founder's birth.

In the preface to "The History of Time," Holford-Strevens explains that "the traditional terms A.D. and B.C. have been retained, in preference to C.E. and B.C.E., for two reasons: adopting the latter causes the maximally distinguished 1 B.C. and A.D. 1 to become the minimally distinguished 1 B.C.E. and C.E. 1; and although, as a date for the birth of Jesus Christ the epoch is almost certainly wrong, it remains a commemoration of that event, and no other event of the same year can be proposed as an alternative of world significance.

Attractive, especially in a globalized age, as a purely secular era may appear, the Christian era cannot be made secular by denying its origin."I don't know Holford-Strevens' religion, but I can't think of many Catholic leaders who could phrase the argument so well.


Anonymous said...

What next?

PR and PR for pre and post Reformation? Great for the protestant brethren with the mindset that they have always been the true church.


BAA and AAA for before and after Allah Akbar. After all, the muslims do believe that we (Jesus too) are all born muslim. And the BAA would remind us of Muhammed's sheep-flocking days, while the current crop of Islam would take great a(in)surance in everyone having AAA.

(sorry, just trying to be funny BC... before coffee)

Michelle Therese said...

That whole C.E. and B.C.E. thing really chaps my Catholic hide!