At age 65, Dr. Timothy Johnson decided to take another look at his faith and rethink everything, as if for the first time. As a seminary graduate, who decided to be a doctor, and ended up on television, Johnson talks about this personal journey in Finding God in the Questions. Johnson is best known as medical editor for ABC News where he's reported on health care issues for Good Morning America since 1976. He holds joint positions in medicine at Harvard University and Mass General Hospital in Boston. He is also the assisting minister at the Community Covenant Church in Massachusetts.
Your book starts with the most rigorous questions about the intellectual sensibility of faith in a scientific age. How do you deal with the question about whether the universe is an accident or not?
There's an even more basic question that I eventually get to which is, Why is there something rather than nothing? When you think about it, there's nothing that says that it has to be. If you start with that question, then I think the very next question becomes, Is this kind of world more likely to have happened by accident or by design? I point out that it's amazing that we wouldn't for a minute look at objects of everyday life, the television in our room or a vase on the table and say, how did that come about? We know it came about because of some kind of intelligence and some kind of design by a person or a committee of persons. But when it comes to this unbelievable universe, we can be talked into thinking that it could have happened by chance.
The creation of the universe is absolutely amazing, from my point of view, and that's a bias probably because I'm a physician. I find that the human body is even in some ways more amazing. And when you get down to the structure of DNA and the brain, in particular, it turns out to be the most amazing structure that we could ever possibly imagine.
To give you one little example—the compacting ability of DNA. All the information needed to run each of us weighs less than a few trillionths of a gram. And here's another little factoid that just blows my mind. If we were to collect all of the information in DNA for all the organisms that have ever existed on this planet, it could fit into the size of a grain of salt.
How do you want to help people work through the role of the Bible and its usefulness for contemporary human inquiry about God?
It's obvious that modern secular people will not simply take the "authority of the Bible" as a given. So I spend some time talking about why I think the Biblical records, in general, and most importantly to me, the New Testament gospels, are reliable as historical documents. I go through some of the evidence and talk about the debate that clearly is going on and give reasons why I think ultimately it is reliable. I'm not saying it's a videotape record like we have in the evening news. The gospels are clearly documents that were written with a point of view and a purpose. But imbedded in the gospels we find the life and teachings of Jesus described there, and information that is very useful and that is a reflection of who Jesus was and what he did and said.
The most basic starting point for a secular mind, or even a person of faith today, would be to actually read the gospels. What are some of the things that you think surprise the secular mind about who Jesus is?
Jesus taught a lot about how we are to relate to the material world. Second only in terms of the amount of space devoted to the kingdom of God are his teachings about possessions and wealth and money. There's no way you can avoid that. The other thing that I think comes across so clearly is the way in which Jesus reached out to people who were in trouble. This was a constant theme in his ministry. He wasn't concerned about religious propriety, he wasn't concerned about institutional matters, he was concerned to find and deal with people in trouble.
You make a comment about some of Jesus' surprising teachings. You say, "He doesn't talk about abortion or homosexuality, but he says a lot about divorce."
I think one of the great tragedies today is that so many people in the secular world think that all the church cares about and ever talks about are these kinds of issues, like abortion and homosexuality. I've literally had some of my secular friends say to me, Do you ever talk about anything besides those things? I think we have to get away from being so focused on those issues, as important as they may be and are to so many people, and remember that the person that we follow in all of this, said nothing about either one of those.
I know I'm going to ruffle some feathers by saying this, but I've always assumed that if he felt they were that important he would have said something about them. And so I follow that example, I put them aside. I'm not saying they shouldn't be debated and discussed, but I'm saying they are not the central issues when it comes to being a follower of Jesus.
Evangelicals don't want to talk about the fact we are upwardly mobile suburbanites who are financially blessed in a world where there's still a lot of poverty. Because of that, the Sermon on the Mount can make people very uncomfortable.
It is clearly the most difficult issue for me emotionally because, unexpectedly, I have made much more money than I ever thought I would as a parish minister. So what do I do with this and how do I live according to the teachings of Jesus? I've tried to do it in some systematic ways by tithing, or even more than tithing. But I have never given 'til it hurts and so now, at this point in my life, I'm really trying to think about what I do with what I have. I don't think you can escape that question if you claim to be a follower of Jesus. It's everywhere in the gospel, as I said earlier, and it's clearly in the Sermon on the Mount. And so I'll just say boldly, I don't think you really can claim to be a follower of Jesus unless you've agonized over this question, if you have money to spare.
You use Kiplee, your daughter, as an illustration of how people can actually live out the issues that mattered to Jesus according to the way he discussed the final judgment.
Jesus says what's going to separate the sheep from the goats is how you treat the least among us. And that is phenomenal when you think about it, because we focus on all this other stuff. Jesus focuses on how we treat the least of us. People are going to be surprised at judgment. They had no idea when they were taking care of the least among us that they were really taking care of Jesus. And I talk about my daughter, who is not formally religious, but she has a heart that is just as big as all outdoors, and spends her summers taking care of handicapped people. She has a doctoral degree in physical therapy, but she takes her summer vacations and goes to a place where she, for 24 hours a day, takes care of handicapped people. According to the portrait of judgment, she's going to do better on that day than I am.
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Finding God in the Questions is available from Christianbook.com and other book retailers.
More information is available from the publisher.
ABC News also has a bio of Dr. Timothy Johnson.
Dick Staub is president of the Center for Faith and Culture, which examines intersections between popular culture and religious belief. Complete transcripts and audio versions of Dick Staub Interviews can be found at dickstaub.com. Recent Dick Staub Interviews for Christianity Today include:
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