Dr. Timothy Johnson, medical editor of ABC-TV and host of Good Morning America's "On Call with Dr. Tim Johnson," started out to be a Protestant minister. But two years out of divinity school, he changed direction and entered medical school at age 29-drawn by his experience as a hospital chaplain and by a scientific turn of mind that caused him to question everything, including his faith. Over the years, Johnson has continued to explore the "big questions" of religion. He remains a believer and says he has become "comfortable with intellectual and spiritual doubt-it stimulates me to think about what I really believe." Johnson spoke with Beliefnet about his new book, "Finding God in the Questions."

You've been a medical journalist on TV for thirty years. Did you have to conceal from colleagues that you were a Christian?

No, I have never had to hide it, or tried to hide it at all. In fact, most of my colleagues in both medicine and media know that I am an ordained minister. That's why they come to me for spiritual discussions, and I have performed many weddings for good friends in both worlds over the years. It's even came up on TV occasionally just in certain natural ways. I don't go around broadcasting it since that's not the position I hold at ABC.

Maybe I'll also say right up front that I don't often label myself as a Christian. That word bothers me because it's so imprecise-it covers such a territory of both good and bad. So more and more I say I am a "follower of Jesus." In fact, if there is one message I would like people to take away from the book, it is that you don't have to be a Christian to be a follower of Jesus. That is, you don't have to subscribe to all the intellectual, creedal developments of the Christian church and certainly don't have to support so many of its terrible choices over the years.

What denomination are you connected with?

I am a member of the Evangelical Covenant Church, which is a relatively small group that started in Sweden in the 19th century when the Pietistic movement swept through Europe and got transplanted to this country in the immigrations in the later part of that century. Its headquarters are in Chicago. It's the church I happened to be born into and I'm still a part of. I would describe it as a mainline Protestant church quite similar to the Lutheran Church.

Do you still actively minister at the church?

Not actively. I am listed as an assisting minister on the staff of our congregation in the Boston area where we live. I'm really a lay person who just happens to participate once in a while.

I wanted to get into what you call "the big questions" in your book, which is about questioning and still keeping your faith. What are some of the big questions you've struggled with? And how does being a scientist and a man of faith lead you to some sort of answer?

One message I'm hoping to get across is that you don't have to have answers to everything to still be a person of faith. You can live according to what you can know or understand and live with doubt. That's something I've done my whole life.

Obviously the biggest question of all is whether or not there is a designer for this universe and therefore whether we are products of that design. As I have thought it through and read about it for many years, I've come to the conclusion that on balance I think it's more likely to have happened by design, even though there's been an enormous amount of chance involved.

You mentioned that God's footprints are in the design. What are some of the scientific facts that lead you to conclude that there is a designer behind it?

The so-called "cosmic coincidences" are in many ways the most stunning. When you look at them, the margins for the major forces in our universe that allow it to become what it is are so absolutely minimal. And indeed, many agnostic scientists are increasingly impressed with these too. They say, "It doesn't make me believe in a traditional God, but it certainly does suggest some kind of intelligence behind this universe."

And these cosmic coincidences culminate in the fact that man has evolved?

Yes, they certainly have set the stage-the environment-that has allowed the evolution of life in general, and of man in particular.

Could you describe one of these cosmic coincidences?

Here's one. The initial explosive force of the Big Bang appears to have been just right to result in the formation of the universe. The most microscopic shift one way or another, and the universe would have either collapsed back on itself or expanded too rapidly for stars to form. The probability of this happening has been compared to firing a bullet at a one inch target 20 billion light years away-and hitting the target. And that's just one example out of dozens and dozens that have been discovered.

Many religious people feel strongly that the theory of evolution contradicts their faith, and yet you feel that evolution and natural selection are compatible with faith.

I absolutely do. I think there's enormous evidence for the operation of natural selection in evolving life in general and human life in particular. The underlying genetic machinery--which allows mutations to happen in the first place and then to be preserved via natural selection passed on from generation to generation--is more plausibly viewed as having developed by design rather than by chance. By the way, Darwinian theory does not account for the Big Bang and for the development of life initially from non-living chemicals. The complexity and precise calibration of these phenomena [also] argue for the universe as having been designed.

What's your perspective on the miracles of Jesus? Do you think they set aside natural laws, or were they the fulfillment of some physical laws that we don't yet understand?

I'm an agnostic on that one. I think there's a lot we don't know, and that's why I quote St. Augustine about miracles where he says, "Miracles are not contrary to nature, but only contrary to what we know about nature." Miracles are not essential to my particular faith, and if you read the Gospels with an open mind, Jesus didn't seem to think they were very important either in terms of religious faith.

I'm much more concerned about looking at the life and teachings of Jesus, rather than the so-called supernatural events.

How do you keep conscious of God while reporting on medical stories?

I am not conscious moment by moment in my work as a medical journalist. But every once in a while I find myself just sort of sitting back at some discovery [in medicine or the human organism] and saying, "Man, this is just incredible." And in this moment I kind of have experiences of faith, of awe, of enormous respect for the universe we live in and ultimately for what I believe is the creative force behind the universe.

Was there ever a story that tested your faith?

The biggest test to my faith and I think the faith of most people is the whole conundrum of unexplained, unwarranted suffering. I encounter that all the time. I did when I was a practicing physician. I do now in having to report on what I do. And certainly in many phone calls I get from friends and strangers about their desperate medical situations. So to me the presence of suffering is the huge stumbling block to faith.

Why are you coming out with this book now?

I was approaching my 65th birthday. That's sort of a traditional cultural moment to think about life again, isn't it? Also, for many years I have had conversations with people in the worlds of medicine and media about my faith, and inevitably they will ask me, "So what do you really believe?" I thought to myself, maybe I should take some time and think that through and write it down, because most of us do better when we write out our thinking. It makes us face issues more precisely.

You said in a very honest way that you felt that you haven't lived up to your own expectations. What do you mean by that?

Well, I've always been captivated by the parables and the teachings of Jesus. When you look at them and take them seriously, they are very demanding and often very contrary to the siren songs of our culture. And I don't think I've a very good job living according to those standards.

Are you speaking about Jesus' teaching about money and taking thought for what you own?

Yes. I would say that is certainly one of them. I haven't met the standards that Jesus suggested on the Sermon on the Mount, and it bothers me. And I'm thinking about what I should do about it. I'm trying to make some changes--doing a lot more giving than I have, even though I've been, by most standards, a generous giver. And the other one that any person of faith needs to constantly access for themselves is the way in which we deal with and treat other people. I think I have done a little better on that one than maybe I have on the use of material possessions, but I'm not perfect.

Do you mean the golden rule?


In the book you devote a chapter to Albert Schweitzer, who was also a doctor and minister. How did his life inspire you?

It was a providential moment. Just as I was finishing the first draft of this book, I was invited to help prepare a videotape for the Schweitzer Foundation in Boston. As a college student, I had won a competition for a speech on Schweitzer, but I hadn't thought about him in years. I found myself again captivated by his amazing commitment to helping the down and out in our society-in his case, of course, choosing to go to Africa to do it. What a monumental change he made in his life, giving up fame and fortune as a scholar and musician to go to medical school and go work in Africa. His whole life and motivation are tied up with the life and teachings of Jesus. He was really the first modern historical Jesus scholar.


Oh yes. His book "The Quest for the Historical Jesus," first published in 1906, was really a huge seminal work. It still is in many ways. And so here is a man who had all kinds of doubts about Jesus in terms of his historical stories and writes about them very honestly and openly. But he writes, "Despite these doubts about the historical Jesus, I am captivated by the spirit of Jesus and motivated to go out and serve people as a result."

So it was just kind of a providential moment that I was asked to work on this video and become reacquainted with Schweitzer's life at a point when I was literally finishing up this book that struggles with the same kinds of issues.

Do you feel impelled to incorporate into your life some of the things that Schweitzer did?

His life has once again inspired me to rethink my own at a point when I will be doing it anyway. So it's going to be a very important part of how I think about how I'm going to spend the rest of my time. I've got another year to go on my ABC contract, and at that point I'm going to really rearrange my life so that I have more time to do direct service projects in ways that I can't quite figure out yet.

You seem to have come full circle from your roots in studying for the ministry. Then you took a detour...

A forty-year detour. But to be fair, I guess it was not a total detour because I've stayed active in my church and certainly have tried to make myself available to people with medical problems, which I've always regarded as a kind of ministry. I think medicine and ministry at their best really do share a very similar motivation of service.

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