Which of the following dating terms does the BBC consider appropriate for historical reference?
- Before Christ (BC)
- “In the year of our Lord,” Anno Domini (AD)
- Before the Common Era (BCE)
- Common Era (CE)
Answer: all of them.
The first two are confessional terms associated with Christianity, obviously. They make Jesus’s birth the fulcrum around which distinct eras are, in an ultimate sense, contextualized. The second two terms are more contemporary academic designations. They accept the convention of Jesus’s (assumed) year of birth as a fulcrum in Western cultural history, but drop the confessional content.
A spokesperson for the BBC recently put it this way:
Both AD and BC, and CE and BCE are widely accepted date systems and the decision on which term to use lies with individual production and editorial teams.
And the BBC has started using BCE-CE at its website. As a practical matter, given the BBC’s characteristically academic content, this means that BC and AD are a thing of the past. At least at the BBC. Almost no academic or academic publisher, after all, uses them anymore.
Will anybody use BC and AD fifty years from now? My guess is that only the most self-conscious of Christians and Gregorian calendar nostalgists are likely to.
I suppose you’ll know that the transition from BC-AD to BCE-CE is complete when it starts appearing in textbooks designed for US public schools. Perhaps the shift has already occurred and nobody noticed, but I doubt that very much. That transition will almost certainly result in a noisy dust-up between left and right. To get a feel for what’s coming on the culture war front, here’s a sample, at the Mail Online, of the outrage that James Delingpole mustered in response to the BBC’s new policy:
[Y]et another small part of our tradition, language and culture takes a step closer to extinction. We didn’t ask for it; we didn’t want it; yet still it’s happening because a tiny minority of politically correct busybodies have wormed their way into institutions such as the BBC and taken control.
But this whole debate, when it comes on in full force, is probably misplaced. Conservatives ought to embrace BCE-CE because it’s one more symptom indicating that the age of Common Dreams (CD) has long passed. It’s a sign that libertarianism is winning. Common dreams, after all, lead to common totalisms, and contemporary conservatives have made the strong point, at least in the United States, that they don’t want to conform to broad cultural sensibilities set by elites.
And you don’t get any more elite than Dionysius Exiguus. He was, after all, both a monk and member of the Roman Curia, and was the first to use AD. He did this as a refinement on the Roman Julian Calendar, which goes back before the birth of Christ. Pope Gregory XIII, who instituted the Gregorian Calendar, was also part of an elite fraternity (the Catholic popes).
So, end the elitism! Set a non-confessional term for interaction between groups, and let those groups then set their own terms for use within their own communities (as they determine).
If I had the deciding vote, the new calendar would be, not BCE-CE, but CD-ACD: the age of Common Dreams (CD) and the age After Common Dreams (ACD). My vote for the date of that division would be the birth of Nietzsche in 1844. Nietzsche was the first person to fully absorb the implications of Darwin’s Origin of Species, which are the following:
- nihilism; and
- the end of the “given.”
This is also the year in which Charles Darwin told Joseph Dalton Hooker that admitting his belief in evolution by natural selection to others felt akin to “confessing a murder”—the murder, of course, being that of God.
But, really, the West has never known long eras of common dreams: Greek democracy and science succumbed to Roman Caesarism and Christian faith, and Christian faith never seemed able to arrive at a proper detente with either Judaism or Islam, which have always been “problems” for Christianity (though Judaism and Islam are part of our Western cultural heritage). Christianity itself fractured bitterly at the Protestant Reformation, and the Protestant Reformation gave way to the Enlightenment, which could not prevent its own schismatics from appearing on the scene: Nietzchean nihilists, eugenicists, communists, and postmodernists. The center, however we have ever defined it, has never held.
So, the BBC is simply acknowledging the truth: we don’t live in the age of Common Dreams, and we needn’t pretend that we do. But the ill-informed and ahistorical circus acts (all based on misremembering the fractious nature of Western cultural history) must go on. So, as you might expect, a conservative British tabloid, no doubt a part of Rupert Murdoch’s holdings, has come to the defense of Pope Gregory (as if we’re all Catholics):
But, given the fiascos of past ages dominated by Common Dreams, it’s good to have a non-confessional calendar. Conservatives ought to see it as one less opportunity for systematic mischief.
Update: Kentucky’s state school board had a BCE-CE skirmish in 2006. See here.