When you get a bit Zoomed out (usually during a Zoom meeting, to be honest) distraction comes easily. For me it’s always songs that go around my head. It can be problematic.

Today has been complicated because there are two songs: one by REM and one by Bruce Cockburn.

’It’s the end of the world as we know it’ is the title of REM’s 1987 epic. It also chimes in with today and the uncertain future we all now face. I’ve always thought that obsessions with the end of the world are a clever way of avoiding the ending of lots of worlds – something that happens every day for someone somewhere.

What we are gong through now with Covid-19 is the ending of a way of life that we always assumed would just keep going and growing (like the economy). We can’t yet know what this death will give birth to because we can’t get to resurrection until we have done the loss of Friday and lived through the agonising emptiness of Saturday.  But, we will have to decide how to handle the disorientation of the ending of a world before we work out if or how to shape the world that might emerge from the ashes of our expectations.

This shouldn’t come as a shock. History tells us that the affluence of the West is abnormal and always precarious. Empires come and go, don’t they? Humility should trump hubris, but that might be wishful thinking.

Bruce Cockburn has been exploring the universe for decades and he has done so in the most beautiful poetry as well as the best guitar playing. (I know I keep banging on about him, but that’s just the way it is. Sorry.) yet, occasionally you get a bit of an oddity that is brilliant, but unexpected. One of these is ‘Anything Can Happen’ – a romantic tune, but killing words. Try this, the chorus:

Anything can happen
To put out the light,
Is it any wonder
I don’t want to say goodnight?

The verses rehearse some of the random and terrible things that might happen to anyone at any time. It is funny and sharp. But, it also questions our easy failure to face mortality and contingency – both fundamental to living in a material world which we can’t control.

This just makes the point that, despite our attempts at securing our security, we all actually live in the edge. Realising and accepting this is the beginning of human freedom. All the other questions then follow on.

It feels like the virus has compelled us to face what we otherwise suppress by busyness, distraction (“amusing ourselves to death”, as Neil Postman put it) or fear. (Today is also the 75th anniversary of Adolf Hitler’s death by suicide – ending a war and opening up a different future beyond the destruction and death. But, that’s for another day.)

REM didn’t just create an anthem; in the title of the epic song they put their finger on something vital. There are times when ‘my religion’ needs to be lost.

One of the constant messages to the people who took God for granted – read, for example, Isaiah 1-39 – is that sincerity is not enough, serious religiosity can be dangerous, that vision can be confused with fantasy. So, for example, thinking that God is there to make my life complete, to protect me from the contingencies of human living, or to exempt me from suffering, is a form of religious assumption that needs to be ditched. In the same way, reducing God to some sort of tribal deity is to create an illusion that needs to be abandoned.

The trouble is, we usually don’t have the courage to ditch religious fantasy. We don’t often take out our assumptions about God, the world and us, and examine them. So, it is left to trauma, loss or shock to shake us up and compel us to take a brave look at what we think matters and why.

But, losing dodgy religion can be a gift. Far better to live with reality – however messy or risky – than to live an illusion.

Generations come and go. And I discover that I am not the centre of the universe, after all. But, like any individual in any generation, I am called to be faithful to God’s way of loving, living and learning in my generation, recognising that mortality sets me free to live and die without fear.

This is the script of this morning’s Pause for Thought on BBC Radio 2’s Chris Evans Show (in Mental Health Week):

It seems to me that some people are better at talking than others. I don’t mean just driving everyone else witless by endless rambling – the classic pub bore. What I mean is that some people find ways to open a valve and let the pressure out by putting into words what’s going on deep down inside them.

Remember that great REM song ‘Everybody hurts’? “Everybody hurts, sometimes, everybody cries.” There’s even a line about “Cause everybody hurts, take comfort in your friends.” It reminds me of that line in Crocodile Dundee when the Ozzie Outbacker responds to an explanation of New York ‘therapy’ with, “Haven’t you got any mates?”

Well, friends are important, but even the most gregarious people sometimes find themselves in a place best described as dark. And it’s easy then to think that you’re the only one who hurts – the only one who cries.

Now, I would say this, wouldn’t I, but anyone who reads the Bible will find utter realism here. People are portrayed as they are and stories are told that reveal a deep empathy with raw human experience – including what we now would call mental health challenges. Look at the Psalmists – poets writing three thousand years ago – who cry out of the depths and give us a vocabulary for pain and suffering. “How long, O Lord, how long” must we endure this suffering? “I feel like I am being hunted and there is no escape – who can I trust in this world?” These songs and poems are ripped from the heart of the sort of experiences many of us endure today.

But, the Psalmists also offer a different take. They shine a different light on this experience. “Where can I go from your presence?” one of them asks. “If I go up to the highest heights or down to the deepest depths, you are there. I go to the farthest east and the remotest west, and you are there, too.”

In other words, if you don’t find the words to express your own anguish, these guys have given you some. Everybody hurts, everybody cries, everybody bleeds. Just don’t believe the ones who say they don’t. And you are not alone. Everybody hurts. Sometimes.

The REM classic from the 1991 Out of Time album proved a turning point in REM’s career. It also became a bit of an anthem for a disillusioned generation of people who didn’t want too much depth, but loved a good tune and a soundbite lyric. I still turn the volume up high in the car and belt it out with Michael Stipe. It is somehow cathartic.

It came to mind again yesterday when I was reading the Independent Magazine. In it Deborah Orr interviews Marcus du Sautoy (now, that is a name you don’t forget) who has just replaced Richard Dawkins as the Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at the University of Oxford. The chair was created for Dawkins and he held it for thirteen years until he grew less interested in science and apparently only interested in evangelising for atheism.

sautoyDu Sautoy is also an atheist, but is keen to leave the ‘interesting’ debate about science and religion to other people. He is more interested in the promotion of the public understanding of science in general and mathematics in particular. It appears that his decision to concentrate on science has met with huge approval from people who are fed up with the Dawkins crusade.

This is very good news. Not because theists will be glad to have the heat taken off them for a while – or, at least, from this particular direction – but because  the promotion of science is a pressing need. The number of people going into scientific research and teaching is diminishing in the UK and this is both tragic and worrying. I will not be the only theist calling for greater investment in scientific research, better communication of the richness of science and greater encouragement to young people to embark on scientific careers.

However, I suggest that two comments should be introduced to this discussion.

Firstly, I wonder if the diminution in the numbers of those going into science has something to do with the diminution in our ability to evoke wonder and imagination in our children. It is the vastness of the universe and the complexity of life from the micro to the macro that captures the imagination and provokes the serious questions of meaning. But this is where the problem lies in the current debate: science pursues mechanics, but cannot address the questions of meaning. yet the two cannot be separated. The Dawkins obsession with losing the religion in order to leave science unsullied patently doesn’t work.

Secondly, knocking what you don’t like is never very useful for the cause you want to promote. A renewed concentration on science and research needs not to be distracted by artificial and misleading obsessions with false dichotomies. Simply put, religion and science are asking different questions and are not mutually exclusive. The myth of scientific totalitarianism needs to be debunked. But so does the stupid idea that the Bible answers every question in the world.

earth-lightI might add a third observation here. Surely one of the greatest problems in the science-religion debate – centered mainly on the creation-evolution divide – is illiteracy. Without writing a whole book on the matter, I don’t expect poetry to depict scientific factuality. When Isaiah says that ‘the trees of the field will clap their hands’, I don’t throw the Bible in the bin on the grounds that it is nonsense to suggest that trees have hands to clap. Similarly, to treat the Hebrew poetry of Genesis 1-11 as scientific abstract is as absurd (and dangerous) as arboreal hand-spotting.

And this, I suggest, brings the two things together. We need an approach to science that evokes wonder and curiosity and inquisitiveness, but with an openness to mystery and the questions of meaning. And alongside it we need to teach people how to read – especially when it comes to reading religious texts.

Of course, Marcus du Sautoy may lose the religion only to find it appearing more healthily elsewhere. I wish him well in his new job.