AD 2012 or 2012 CE?
In the English-speaking world, the use of the secular phrases "Before the Common Era" and "Common Era," abbreviated "BCE" and "CE," have shown up in academia, in scientific and historical works, and increasingly among the mainstream media. Among reasons for replacing the fifteen-hundred-year-old societal norms of "BC" and "AD" is the the perceived need for sensitivity toward those who do not embrace the Christian values expressed in denoting years by "Before Christ" and "Anno Domini," or "Year of our Lord." For a number of reasons, though, not only does the new dating standard fail in its desired effect, but it may ultimately cause unintended confusion and polarization, not to mention offense to the Christian majority.
Before AD 532, there was no real dating system which distinguished between the eras we now think of as BC and AD. At that time in Rome, a monk by the name of Dionysus Exiguus, while put to work by Pope John I setting out dates for future celebrations of Easter, estimated the year of the incarnation and birth of Jesus Christ as being 753 years after the founding of Rome. This AD method of dating was later adopted by the eighth-century Venerable Bede in Historia Ecclesiastica. His use of "Anno ab incarnatione Domini" was shortened to" Anno Domini," or AD. Bede was also the first to use a designation for the distinction of the years before the birth of Christ, though he did not, of course, use the modern English "Before Christ." As it became necessary to reform the Justinian calendar, the BC/AD method was then incorporated into the Gregorian calendar of 1582. That calendar has been used widely since, and although many other cultures continue to use their own, it has become, for the sake of consistency in international trade and communication, the standard.
In the nineteenth century, though, an alternative to the BC/AD dating standard showed up in English-language works of Jewish history. "CE," or "Common Era," began to be used around 1838, and the use of "BCE," or "Before the Common Era," is found starting in about 18811. Of course, since the latter date is actually the year 5642 in the Hebrew calendar, these are designations superimposed upon the Gregorian calendar (used by the Jewish world for many day-to-day functions) while referring to Jewish history. So this use of "BCE" and "CE" -- until the late 20th century -- was rather esoteric.
However, in 1999, then-United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan proclaimed that "the Christian calendar no longer belongs exclusively to Christians. There is so much interaction between people of different faiths and cultures -- different civilizations, if you like -- that some shared way of reckoning time is a necessity. And so the Christian Era has become the Common Era"2. Not long after, instances of more mainstream use of the new designations emerged. (For the sake of convenience, I shall here on out refer to "BCE" and "CE" as PCD, for Politically Correct Dating). Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia has a somewhat cautious entry for PCD in 2001, stating that "some people use" these designations as opposed to the traditional standard3. But by 2008, The World Almanac and Book of Facts authoritatively refers to PCD as the "notation now preferred"4.
Preferred for what reasons? And by whom is it preferred? In 1997, attorney Adena Berkowitz preferred that "in the year of our Lord" not be included with the date (an option then newly offered) on an application to practice law before the Supreme Court. She said, "Given the multicultural society that we live in, the traditional Jewish designations -- BCE and CE -- cast a wider net of inclusion, if I may be so politically correct"5.
But as this more widespread use began to be noticed, negative reactions arose as well. The late William Safire opined, "For non-Christians to knock themselves out avoiding the word 'Christ' when it so clearly refers to a person from whose birth we date our secular calendar's count seems unduly strained and almost intolerant"5. An interesting development making the news five years ago was the turnaround by the Board of Education of the State of Kentucky; in the spring of 2006, educators were to include PCD in curriculum standards "for exposure to those terms" and "to facilitate students' familiarity"6. Later that year, it was decided that those designations were to be removed from instructional guidelines, following not only input from certain Christian groups, but general public outcry as well.
Another development which brought about great public reaction was the announcement by the British Broadcasting Company in late September 2011 of the adoption of PCD. A Church of England spokesman insisted that the traditional time standards of BC/AD "more clearly reflect Britain's Christian heritage"2. Andrew Marr, a well-known BBC "presenter," presented his own refusal to make the switch7. Then, in early October, a Department of Education spokesman clarified the British government's position after the pro-PCD announcement by the publicly funded broadcasting company. He stated that BC/AD naming was, in fact, not offensive, and that educators should continue to use the system2. Obviously, attempts to promote PCD for the sake of sensitivity to and inclusiveness of non-Christians have offended the Christian majority.
Confusion reigns as well. For one, PCD still has, as its point of reference, the birth of Christ. For convenience in not having to change the widely used hinge upon which history is set forth, "79 CE" refers to the same year as does "AD 79." A different dating standard, then, is using the same reference as that of the traditional for "before" and "after" -- that of the foundational event for the Christian faith. The only difference is in how it is referred to.
Also confusing is precisely what "common" means in referring to an era. If the Webster's New World Dictionary main definition for the word -- "belonging equally to, or shared by every one or all"8 -- seems to make the most sense for its use in "Common Era," why, then, are the years before the birth of Christ not a Common Era as well? What distinguishes that era from the following one, if one uses Webster's definition? Perhaps the true definitions which fit the reason for the use of "common" are the seventh -- "having no rank" -- and the ninth -- "not refined; vulgar; low; coarse."
In fact, the European use of the "Era Vulgaris" or "EV," meaning "Vulgar Era," as predecessor to the English "Common Era" originally referred to the EV system as "non-regal." This makes the most sense in the case of Johannes Kepler, who used the EV notation in a book in 1615. Kepler was at odds with the Catholic Church, hence with the Holy Roman Empire, and therefore would have used Era Vulgaris to mean "not regal." A Lutheran, he may not have necessarily meant it as a secular affirmation, though.
EV was also used interchangeably with AD among other European Christians of that day. In this case, the current use of "common" in "Before the Common Era" and "Common Era" is accidental, and totally nonsensical, as well. (Adding to the confusion, some present-day sources allow for the "C" to stand for "Christian" while others admit that it is sometimes used to mean "current.") When curious schoolchildren want to know why one era is common and the one that precedes it is not, there is no real answer. There has always been an easy explanation, however, for the delineation between the eras BC and AD -- the birth of one Jesus Christ.
"Before Christ," if one is concerned about sensitivity towards non-Christians, may not necessarily be viewed as referring to the belief system that Jesus is the Messiah, since it is not always known in contemporary culture that "Christ" means just that. "Anno Domini," however, translated as "The Year of Our Lord" (what the Jewish attorney objected to using in her application to the Supreme Court), is another story altogether. That it asserts that a new era was brought about by the birth of Jesus, being Lord and Messiah, makes the phrase an affirmation of the basis of Christianity. But we live in a predominantly Christian society. We are surrounded by a multitude of Christian names. Are we to rename St. Louis, St. Albans, and Christchurch in an attempt to be culturally sensitive? The renaming of St. Petersburg is brought to mind -- an agenda of de-Christianization was at work in Russia as the city was renamed Leningrad in 1914.
What is happening now seems to be almost pre-emptive. In anticipation of offense by those of other faiths, or of no faith, the promotion of PCD is oddly ubiquitous in a mainly Christian society. And, as Reverend Austin Miles protests, we are experiencing "a major alteration of history, without notice, or fanfare." The instances cited earlier -- the reaction to the Kentucky board, the reaction to the BBC's pronouncement -- were by citizens and groups who felt blindsided by something for which they had not been warned, prepared, or given any option for input. This scenario is offensive to the Christian majority.
Regarding any perceived offense to non-Christians by traditional dating standards, I am not able to find instances where they are described as discriminatory until after PCD began to be promoted. (Ms. Berkowitz made her decision, having already had it suggested to her.) Where was the outcry, the widespread insistence upon changes that precipitated such decisions? There has never been a dating standard Rosa Parks, nor has there been a Politically Correct Dating March on Washington. No politician has run on the platform that publicly funded schools and museums must adopt a more culturally sensitive dating reference. No related initiatives have been up for vote. Also, where was the public-square discussion before such pronouncements of changes?
As well, the reason for eliminating a fifteen-hundred-year-old non-problematic time standard is lost on many who acknowledge and accept the Christian values implicit in BC and AD (though many in our society use the initials without ever expanding them to their full terms). We all in our daily lives, in a Western society with a lengthy and complex history, use a great number of names of pagan origin. Our weekdays -- for example, "Thursday," named for the Norse god Thor -- originate in decidedly non-Christian cultural history. A great deal of our vocabulary , including the names of many months of the year, as well as the Hindu-Arabic numerals we use, also reflect contributions to our Western culture which are not Christian. We of the Christian majority tend to accept these factors for what they are -- elements from diverse sources making up a mature, complex culture. Indeed, unless we are to open a can of worms and suggest that non-Christian elements be expunged, there should not be such cavalier disposal of any Christian aspects of our culture in pre-emptive moves to appease non-Christians. Duncan Steel in Masking Time rejects the secular assignments of PCD as "selective." Anglican Bishop Peter Jensen claims that such changes reflect an "intellectually absurd attempt to write Christ out of human history."
Here, then, is where polarization comes into the picture. In the attempt to appease non-Christians in our society, we are pre-empting sensitivity with PCD. An environment filled with attempts at political correctness may lead someone to feel offense at AD dating. But we live in a predominately Christian society. Is it possible, then, that those things which may not have mattered much to non-Christians suddenly have become issues, merely due to the implied responsibility of the supposed victim of offense to accept his or her assigned status of victimhood? This reeks of disingenuousness on the part of both PCD promoters and the so-called "victims" of the traditional BC/AD.
Disingenuous, too, is the already-mentioned fact of the point of reference in time not changing -- only how PCD refers to it, by ignoring that date as being that of the birth of Christ. Polarization occurs as Christians recognize this fact. It may appear, then, as change being made merely for its own sake. In this case, inclusivity, as the Jewish attorney chooses to define it, is not inclusivity at all; rather, she decides to ignore a fifteen-hundred-year-old dating standard used by Western civilization, when, in the true spirit of inclusivity, she might have embraced it as we in our daily lives embrace the multicultural hodgepodge which makes up our overall culture.
BCE and CE are anemic forerunners of a Non-Culture which is to be avoided at all costs, for such a world reflects the unwillingness of citizens to get along. Politically correct dating's ability to confuse, conflict, and polarize must be dealt with by frank discourse aimed at deciding whether these changes really make any sense at all.
1 The American Heritage New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, #3rd Ed. 2005
2 Chris Hastings. "BBC Turns its Back on the Year of Our Lord." Mail on Sunday, 9/25/2011
3 Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th edition; 10/01/2001, p.1-1
4 Helen A. Gaudette. "Chronology of World History" World Almanac and Book of Facts, 2008, p.658-658.
5 Wire, S. "William Safire-On Language-moon plaque Copyright Times Colonist Victoria 08/17/1997
6 Education Week "Kentucky board Gives Tentative Nod to Secular Time Designation" 4/26/2006, Vol.25 Issue33, p.15-15,1/5p
7 Ben Todd, Paul Sims; Daily Mail 9/26/2011 p.12
8 Webster's New World Dictionary of theAmerican Language The World Publishing Company, New York 1964