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GEN-X RISING: ‘Common Era’ leaves out Jesus Andrew C. Thompson, Oct 20, 2011
By Andrew C. Thompson UMR Columnist
If you were to think that this year is AD 2011, you’d be wrong.
It is 2011 CE. Or at least that’s what some would have us think.
The “CE” stands for “Common Era,” and it is the non-religious label that is taking over the more traditional Christian abbreviation that stands for “in the year of our Lord.”
Many people previously unaware that there even was a competing set of terms for the way we mark the date will hear “Common Era” and “Before the Common Era” much more frequently in the future.
The first time I saw “CE” and “BCE” used was in seminary. A biblical studies professor employed the terms when writing dates on the chalkboard. It appeared eccentric at first, like something I was likely to encounter in academia and nowhere else. I didn’t like it, but I also didn’t think it was something that would catch on outside of academic classrooms.
That changed a few years later when I was in a museum in Raleigh, N.C., and encountered an exhibit on the Dead Sea Scrolls. The exhibit was positively evangelistic about promoting BCE/CE as a replacement for BC/AD.
I realized my previous naïvete. And I also realized that oftentimes it is exactly those little idiosyncratic practices of academia that get gradually adopted into the larger culture and become social norms.
There is the old saying about how the politics of academia are so nasty because the pie the academics are fighting over is so small. But that isn’t the case at all. Scholars know that the issues they debate can have enormous cultural impact down the road.
Today’s classroom conversation becomes tomorrow’s political debate. And tomorrow’s political debate becomes the next day’s social norm.
Sometimes that’s good, and sometimes it isn’t.
A case in point: The Wesley Study Bible was published in 2009 to great fanfare. It was intended to present the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible together with interpretive commentary drawn from John Wesley’s view of Scripture. It does that, but it also presents the BCE/CE dating system as if it is simply the way we all understand the calendar now.
Keep in mind the Wesley Study Bible is not a “for academics, by academics” edition of Holy Scripture. It is by academics, of course. But it is for the church, and it has been heavily promoted by the United Methodist Publishing House.
And then, of course, there’s the recent hubbub in Britain over the British Broadcasting Corporation’s decision to switch to BCE/CE dates. The BBC is arguably the single greatest cultural influence in British society. Its corporate practices shape the surrounding culture simply because of its status as a media giant.
When large institutional bodies set policy, their constituencies are affected. That is true whether the institution in question is the BBC or our own publishing house. And policy set is policy intended to shape the lives of those in any given institution’s sphere of influence.
Me too. I think some questions about BCE/CE must be considered. First among them is simply, why the change?
The answer here has to do with that mushy word “pluralism,” which at present seems to denote something like, “Not all of us look, think, speak, or believe alike, so we have to choose options that are the least likely to offend anyone.”
Pluralism understood in this way tries to be accommodating, but it can also lead to decisions based more on fear than any rigorous deliberation about the rationale behind the decision in question.
In the case of the BCE/CE alternative, the thinking seems to be that non-Christians will find it as a less offensive way to count the years than the old BC/AD standard. (That line of thought was specifically mentioned by BBC executives.)
But if that’s the reason for the switch, then a second question springs immediately to mind: Do we think that non-Christians are utter morons?
No one is suggesting we change the actual dating system, regardless of whether the BCE/CE labels are called a new “system” or not.
The system we use is still that history is divided into two eras, with the dividing line itself still corresponding to the traditional birth date of Jesus Christ. It is just that the abbreviations for the terms “Before Christ” and “Anno Domini” are replaced by the abbreviations for “Before the Common Era” and “Common Era.”
But what for heaven’s sake does the term “Common Era” mean? And do we expect the 5.2 billion non-Christians in the world to simply not realize that they’re still counting the years by the putative birth date of Christ?
The one common feature of all recent attempts to impose the new terms is their failure to answer these kinds of questions. The most thorough rationale given is simply, “It’s less offensive.”
The whole thing puts me in the mood to be a little bit offensive.
Christians believe that we live “in the year of our Lord” because we live in the time since God has become incarnate in Jesus Christ. The history of the world hinges on that event, which is something for which we do not apologize. Even for the sake of pluralistic niceties.
Those who want to move away from a fundamentally Christian mode of ordering world history should propose doing so the way the French did in the 1790s—by devising a truly new calendar system based on Reason (the god worshipped in that particular instance) or whatever other god is in vogue at present.
Doing that will afford a wonderful opportunity for debate—in academic classrooms and in the public square. Until then, let’s call a spade a spade.
The Rev. Thompson is an instructor in historical theology & Wesleyan studies at Memphis Theological Seminary. Reach him at athompson@MemphisSeminary.edu