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Starry Nights

Agnostics Anonymous

We stare into time with the same baffled sense of immense distance and loss with which we stare into space. All is darkness except for a few preserved points of light in infinity, which we strive to regularise into patterns and parallaxes joining us to our long-lost origins. 2013 was 50 years since the Kennedy assassination, 50 years of Doctor Who, 50 years since the Beatles' first number one. In the tolling of the anniversaries we strive to hear the clanging of the anchor against some imaginary sea-bed that would fix us in the present. 2014 will be 50 years since the Beatles' first film - we're going to be moving through some very Beatles-shaped constellations for the next six or seven years - a hundred years since Dylan Thomas was born, a hundred years since the Great War.

Oriental religions have regarded time as 'maya', a meaningless illusion. But Judaism and its troublesome daughters Christianity and Islam have always been committed to history as the place where God happens. That's a difficult stance to take: from an aesthetic point of view, you're much better ignoring the shambling mess of history and sticking to the perfect circles of karma or dharma. But for the Abrahamic religions, history matters. God intervened at identifiable moments in history: issued his commandments on some actual day in some real place; turned up in person and got returned to sender in an unpleasant fashion at some specific calendar date at some particular Google Maps co-ordinates.

So history is sacred and real. Unfortunately it's also a mess. Christianity has tried to solve that problem by seeing patterns in it. Firstly, typology: familiar to anyone who can decode the symbolism of medieval Christian art, typology depends on showing that the key moments of Jewish history are echoed or reprised in Christian history. Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac equals God's sacrifice of Jesus; three days of Jonah in the whale equals three days of Jesus in the tomb; etc.

And beyond the written sacred history, the Christian nations of Europe saw the patterns of their own national stories as types and echoes of the biblical story. Hence the Welsh, the English, the US, all saw themselves as the Chosen People, following their God-given destiny, wandering towards the promised land. Religion and nationalism, Europe's two great linked ideas for giving rhyme and rhythm to history, found their consummation in this concept.

It was the Great War that machinegunned those great narratives. History has no pattern to speak of. Even the other grand designs the modern world has made of history, like Marxism, have gone gentle into that good night. All we have left is the stars in their immutable courses, and the ever-futile attempt to hang patterns on them like so much hopeful tinsel.