Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The Illogic of C.E. (Common Era) and B.C.E. (Before the Common Era)

In a recent E-Letter from Karl Keating, he passes on some thoughts contained in a 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 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.

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