The Need for a New Era

by Victor H. Mair

Time is always a problem. For one thing, I never seem to have enough of it, so I didn't get around to writing this piece until about a year and a half after it first entered my mind. (Actually, I had already conceived of the main ideas proposed here more than a quarter of a century ago, but only decided at the beginning of the summer of 1999 that I wanted to compose an essay espousing them. ) Because the topic of this brief disquisition has to do with how we shall designate the coming millennium, I almost despaired of being too late with my rather urgent appeal. Then I realized, however, that the counting of the new millennium will only begin on January 1, 2001, so -- if I act immediately -- perhaps there is still enough time to send out my message. The Royal Greenwich Observatory, the United States Naval Observatory, The Real Millennium Group, and mathematics all tell us that the third millennium of our current era will start on the first of January of the year 2001 --despite the frenzied hoopla at the end of 1999.

To get right to the point, I propose that we style the next millennium the International Era (I.E.). Why? The main reason is to bring the designation into accord with reality, according to an ancient Chinese politico-philosophical doctrine known as zhengming ("rectification of names"). However we disguise them or pretend that they are neutral, B.C. and A.D. mean "before [Jesus] Christ" and anno Domini ("in the year of the Lord"). This will not do. Neither in terms of power nor in terms of population may we claim that Christianity is any longer the central, controlling doctrine of the world. Forget about the controversies over the actual dating of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth (some sources say, for example, that he was really born in 4 B.C., others that he was born in 6 B.C. [both dates ostensibly based on the gospels, yet paradoxically before his own theologically acknowledged birth year!]); disregard the curious fact that there just happened to be numerous competing messiahs approximately two thousand years ago (messianism was very much in vogue in those days); ignore the enormous complexities surrounding the historicity of the alleged Son of Mary (but not of Joseph). The simple reality is that most people -"' even in the West --no longer believe in Jesus as a divine being nor in the religions that have evolved out of the New Testament and that are supposedly authenticated by the apostolic succession. Therefore, I maintain that it is improper to perpetuate the primacy of Christianity in a world composed largely of non-Christians.

So as not to offend Christians and others who do accept the messianic mission of Jesus of Nazareth as gospel truth, I hasten to recognize the positive contributions of the various branches of Christianity to civilization during the past two millennia and admit that --on the whole --the world is probably a better place than it would have been were they entirely absent. Many Christian theologians, pastors, religious (the singular and plural form of the noun meaning "a person belonging to a monastic order, as a monk or nun"), and lay people have themselves come to accept that we are already in what they term a post- Christian era. This is entertainingly expressed in the first chapter of the book Resident Aliens by Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon. Thus, in urging the adoption of a less Christological standard for the world's dating system, I am not advocating something that has not previously been recognized by the more sensitive adherents of the faith itself.

C.E. (Common Era) and B.C.E. (Before the Common Era) are popular among students of comparative religion and others who adopt. an ecumenical stance. They are to be commended for attempting to find a more inclusive mode of reference. But "common" to what? However you slice it or explain it, C.E. still starts from the presumed date of the birth of the Lord. Even Chinese gongyuan ("public era") and Japanese [seireki] kigen ("[Western] calendar") silently (and ironically) pay tribute to Jesus' birth.

At the current stage of world history, acceptance of a dating system based on the dominical year is tantamount to acquiesence in a misnomer. Recognition of the Christian Era as the world standard implies the superiority of Christianity above all other religions and ideologies. There will be those who utilize specious logic to deny this charge, but the fact remains that it is precisely the birth of Jesus of Galilee -- not of Moses, Zarathustra, Siddhartha Gautama, Confucius, Mani, or any other founder figure -- that is celebrated each time someone cites the dominical year. (Naturally, it would not be wise to promote the presumed birth year of another religious initiator as a substitute for Jesus, for all the obvious candidates are subject to the same sort of ambiguities and partialities as he.) We must select another, more fitting, name and starting date for the next era.