Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Common Language

Some students at Trinity University are pressing to remove "In the Year of Our Lord" from their college diplomas, because, naturally, not everyone thinks Jesus is Lord. Eugene Volokh thinks this is silly:
They are apparently not trying to get the university to drop “Trinity” from the diploma, on the theory that “Trinity” directly references the Trinity, and not everyone believes in the Trinity (one of whose members is Jesus Christ).

But beyond this, the problem with this argument — and the flip side argument that the Constitution is a Christian document because it too mentions “the Year of our Lord” — is that it takes things far too literally. “The Year of our Lord” in a date is about as religious as Providence, Rhode Island, or Corpus Christi, Texas. The meaning no doubt stems from Christianity, as so much in our culture stems from Christianity. Yet all the terms have acquired secular meaning, and using them does not require belief in the theology from which the terms originally stemmed.

I think there are at least two problems with that analysis. First, unlike "Providence, Rhode Island" or "Trinity University", there is another well-known and commonly used term that fills the niche of "A.D.": "Common Era" (C.E.). I have no other clear way of getting someone to know I'm talking about Providence other than by saying "Providence". But while C.E. is certainly less commonly used than A.D., it is quite well-known and part of the English lexicon. Of course, sometimes college names do change (Carleton used to be Northfield College, Duke University used to be Trinity College until 1924), for a variety of reasons, and maybe at one point students will come up with a new name for Trinity that isn't religiously oriented. Which is, of course, their right -- think Phillip Morris to Altrea. If the constituent body of an institution wants to change its name -- for whatever reason -- I don't see why "because the current name might offend some stakeholders" is a particularly bad reason.

But I think the bigger issue is that unlike both Trinity and Providence, "In the Year of Our Lord" isn't just a reference to a religious history, it is a specific religious affirmation. It makes a statement of belief. A place can be named after any number of things, and the religious beliefs of its founders are as good a place to start as any. I don't think anybody reasonably interprets it as holding any normative reflection on the beliefs of its contemporary citizens. By contrast, "in the year of our Lord" has very specific doctrinal message behind it. It doesn't just point to some historical connection with religiosity, it makes a particular claim about the nature of religious truth. That puts it in a qualitatively different field. Even as a resident, it doesn't say anything about me that folks who believed in Christian Providence founded a town in Rhode Island. It does say something when the official documents I receive come with a contested religious claim on them.


joe said...

Even as a resident, it doesn't say anything about me that folks who believed in Christian Providence founded a town in Rhode Island. It does say something when the official documents I receive come with a contested religious claim on them.

I think you're missing the point. By the same token you're objecting to "year of our Lord," "Trinity" implicitly makes a claim that there is a Holy Trinity and Providence implicitly claims to have been founded by divine design. If you're going to dismiss these as too oblique, "year of our Lord" is hardly specific. On the face of the phrase we don't know who the "Lord" in question is, or that he is anything but a secular figure. After all, the king (or in modern times the sovereign bodies of the state) could also be considered the "Lord" of his subjects, and if this secular ruler uses the common dating system we're discussing, then it could surely be said to be his "Year."

It's only when you start making a historical and theological inquiry that you find "our Lord" to be a religious concept. Without that inquiry it's just another name like "Providence" or "Trinity." Contrast that to a phrase like "in God we trust," which makes a religious assertion on its face. So which is it? Do you look at the history of the words or not? If you do, you can't simply pooh-pooh the idea that Trinity is intended as an affirmation.

David Schraub said...

I think that "Trinity" doesn't so much say "there is a Trinity" so much as it says the folks who named the college thought there was. Naming conventions of proper nouns are (rightfully!) generally seen as idiosyncratic to their creators, rather than making grand pronouncements about the whole world. Other linguistic elements don't get that sort of leeway.

joe said...

For all intents an purposes you're discussing a naming convention used by the English-speaking world's calendar. Just as Trinity refers to "that particular university over there," this system refers to "this year over here." The language used is equally idiosyncratic, and, judging by the capitalization, "Year of our Lord" is a proper noun (just as Year of the Dragon, Monday, or Thanksgiving) so I don't see where you get a distinction on that point.

PG said...

I thought the crux of David's point was that the phrase contains the word "Our." I refer to God, Jesus and the Holy Ghost all the time when I've discussing religion, but I don't call Jesus "Our Savior" as a Christian person might, because I don't consider him MY savior. (Putting to the side how loopy this whole concept of someone's "saving" you seems when you're raised in a karmic faith.)

There's a big difference between language that acknowledges a religious concept is out there -- OK, I live in a culture where most people think some other guy died for their sins instead of those sins being worked out on their own asses over time -- and language that indicates one's personal belief in that concept. "C.E." is another good example of this; David doesn't mention it, but the abbreviation is also understood as meaning "Christian Era," and that too is language that refers to a concept that indisputably is Out There, dominating the culture, but does not oblige me to indicate that I believe in the concept itself.

David Schraub said...

Really? I always had seen it transcribed as "Common Era"

PG said...

At least according to a Catholic encyclopedia, in England documents were dating by the "Christian Era" before they used Anno Domini:
What is more, we may notice the striking fact that the regular employment of the Christian Era in English charters began just at the period of Bede's pre-eminent influence. It is only from about the year 679 that we are able to appeal to English charters of indisputable authenticity. Taking eight such documents, the eight earliest which we can quote with confidence and dated respectively 679, 692, 697, 732, 734, 736, 740, 759, we may notice says Professor Earle (Land Charters, Introduc., p. xxxiii) that "of this series the first five though all more or less dated, whether by the month or the regnal year, or by the Indiction, or by all these at once, have not the Anno Domini. On the other hand, the last three agree in using the Christian Era and from this time the practice is continuous.

David Schraub said...

From the Wiki page for Common Era:

The term "Common Era" is traced back in English to its appearance as "Vulgar[23] Era" (from the Latin word vulgus, the common people, i.e. those who are not royalty), to distinguish it from the regnal dating systems typically used in national law. The first use of the Latin equivalent (vulgaris aerae)[24] discovered so far was in a 1615 book by Johannes Kepler.[9] Kepler uses it again in a 1617 table of ephemerides.[25] A 1635 English edition of that book has the title page in English - so far, the earliest-found usage of Vulgar Era in English.[26] A 1701 book edited by John LeClerc includes "Before Christ according to the Vulgar Æra, 6".[27] A 1716 book in English by Dean Humphrey Prideaux says, "before the beginning of the vulgar æra, by which we now compute the years from his incarnation."[28][29] A 1796 book uses the term "vulgar era of the nativity".[30]

The first so-far-discovered usage of "Christian Era" is as the Latin phrase aerae christianae on the title page of a 1584 theology book.[31] In 1649, the Latin phrase æræ Christianæ appeared in the title of an English almanac.[32] A 1652 ephemeris is the first instance so-far-found for English usage of "Christian Era".[33]

The English phrase "common Era" appears at least as early as 1708,[34] and in a 1715 book on astronomy is used interchangeably with "Christian Era" and "Vulgar Era".[35] A 1759 history book uses common æra in a generic sense, to refer to the common era of the Jews.[36] Common era and vulgar era are used as synonyms in 1770, in a translation of a book originally written in German.[37] The 1797 edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica uses the terms vulgar era and common era synonymously.[38] In 1835, in his book Living Oracles, Alexander Campbell, wrote: "The vulgar Era, or Anno Domini; the fourth year of Jesus Christ, the first of which was but eight days",[39] and also refers to the common era as a synonym for vulgar era with "the fact that our Lord was born on the 4th year before the vulgar era, called Anno Domini, thus making (for example) the 42d year from his birth to correspond with the 38th of the common era..."[40] The Catholic Encyclopedia uses the sentence: "Foremost among these [various eras] is that which is now adopted by all civilized peoples and known as the Christian, Vulgar or Common Era, in the twentieth century of which we are now living."[22] During the 19th century, "Vulgar Era" came to be contrasted with "Christian Era", and "vulgar" came to mean "crudely indecent", thus no longer a synonym for "common".

joe said...

PG, "our" might be the line for a Jewish person, but what about an atheist who rejects any notion of God? The assertion in the name Providence (i.e. that divine Providence exists and is somehow bestowed upon this particular city in Rhode Island) might seem no more benign to him or her.

I certainly wouldn't take a diploma with "Year of our Lord" on it to say anything about the owner other than where he graduated. Anymore than I'd assume a religious belief if you gave me some US currency with "In God We Trust" on it. (Of course these both may be objectionable, though the latter is more troublesome for its church-state issue and the fact it's not following a naming convention, but that doesn't lessen Volokh's point that there are a lot of terms at the same level of religiosity.)