Dr. Tim Johnson:Finding God in the Questions (Audio & Transcript)

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Well good afternoon everybody. This is your host and fellow seeker, Dick Staub. You know, our next guest is best known as medical editor for ABC News where, among other things, 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 a follower of Jesus and the assisting minister at the Community Covenant Church in Massachusetts. Dr. Timothy Johnson’s spiritual journey has been one of questions, and he tells us about his personal journey in Finding God in the Questions, published by InterVarsity.

Q. And Tim, it’s great to have you with us today.
A. Thank you, my pleasure.

Q. You start at the outset by saying, “Writing this book has been at attempt to be totally honest about my religious beliefs for the first time in 40 years.” What do you mean by that?
A. Well, 40 years ago I was in seminary. And seminary forces you, I think ¢€œ at least it felt like it did to me ¢€œ to be very honest about your beliefs, because if you’re going to preach this stuff you’d better believe it or you’re going to feel inadequate, maybe even fraudulent in what you say. So I went through that kind of experience while in seminary, very intense, thinking that I was going to end up being a parish minister. But I ended up instead in medical school and, even more unexpectedly, totally unexpectedly, in television. And while I certainly have thought about these matters during these 40 years, I felt an urge, as I approached my sixty-fifth birthday, to get back to them and to really rethink them again as if for the first time.

Q. Well, and a lot has happened in those intervening years, the Jesus Seminar, your own career trajectory. It is a very interesting idea to go back because, as a seminary graduate, I know what you mean by that intensity. And of course, your sojourn took you not only to your denomination’s seminary but also to University of Chicago Divinity School where you really did begin to rethink your faith and, as you put it, try to rework your faith as an inherited faith to a personal faith.
A. Exactly.

Q. You say that you want to draw the distinction between being a follower of Jesus and being a Christian. How has that become important to you? Or what does it really mean?
A. Well, as I’ve had so many dialogues with secular friends in both medicine and media, I’ve come to realize that the word Christian itself has lost any precise meaning. I mean, they think of Jerry Falwell as a Christian. They think of Bishop Spong as a Christian. But as you and I and many others would know, the differences between those two are like night and day. So how does a word then have meaning? I also have become uncomfortable at times with being identified as a Christian because of all of the baggage, historically, that’s attached to that word. I mean, if we’re honest, Christians have done some terrible things through the years. And so for all kinds of reasons I feel more comfortable identifying myself as a follower of Jesus because I think it’s much more precise. You go back to the original documents, the New Testament, just like I do when I study a medical issue, go back to the original studies, and that gives you, I think, a much more precise content about who you are when you say you’re a follower of Jesus.

Q. Yeah. I wrote a book, Too Christian, Too Pagan, and the thesis was that if you truly follow Jesus you’re going to feel too Christian for your pagan friends and too pagan for your Christian friends. And it was really, I think, a reflection of my own experience, because I started my broadcasting career on an NBC affiliate, but I’m a seminary graduate. And I found that same kind of tension emerging in your book. You say at the outset that you¢â‚¬¦ Well, there’s almost like you have a fear of disappointing people, secular achievement, have accomplished certain relationships, and you’re afraid they’ll be turned off by your religious exploration. But on the other hand, some within the religious community might be disappointed with your conclusions. I mean, how has that dissonance with faith, the people of faith and the people in culture, been a factor in your own kind of life and calling?
A. Well, I think up until now I’ve been able to, to put it bluntly, to avoid a lot of dissonance. I’ve never tried to hide my faith. All my friends, and certainly my colleagues in both medicine and media, know that I’m a believer and that I’m a minister, but when you don’t put it out there in explicit form as from the pulpit when you’re a minister or in other ways, you really don’t have to kind of face up to the feedback, so to speak. And I knew when I decided to write this book that that was going to happen. And it does produce a certain kind of anxiety, but it also, it’s exhilarating. I’m already enjoying thoroughly the dialogues I’m having with people because of this book.

Q. Yeah. The book deals with the pillars of doubt and belief. I mean, how has that been the tension of your own faith journey?
A. For as long as I can remember, Dick, even as a child, I’ve always had questions about the Christian religion as I grew up with it and as I came to know it as my own. Really basic questions in some cases as I try to reflect in the book. And I can remember as a child lying in my bed at night trying to figure out who made God. Well you know, that’ll drive you nuts. So you know, I did learn to move on to more manageable questions along the way. But I have always had, if not doubt, at least questions that I wanted to try to answer to my own satisfaction. And I’m not saying that’s a better way or a good way, it just happens to be my way. And so this book, I think, will appeal more to people who are like myself, always sort of asking questions.

Q. You know, actually I’m teaching an adjunct course at Seattle Pacific University. And last night I had just finished your book and I shared your book as an example of a book that I think creates great opportunities for dialogue, as you just said, because your book takes on seriously the kinds of questions that a modern, contemporary, secular mind will raise, and yet it also deals honestly with questions that thinking Christians raise. And there’s not a lot of that kind of bridging of secular and faith community with an honesty towards both. And I think that’s really something that you worked towards in this book and I think accomplished.
A. Well, quite frankly, as I wrote I was thinking of real people in my mind’s eye that I had talked with over the years. So it wasn’t written in the abstract, it was really written with real people in mind and the kinds of dialogues I’ve had with people through the years.

Q. Well what was interesting, too, was there were a number of points where you interjected quotes from letters that you received from friends, a Jewish friend who, after your section on Jesus said, I still don’t quite understand why you would follow Jesus given everything you said about the documents on which the accounts are based, and so forth. So your book kind of was an ongoing interaction while it was being written.
A. Well, what happened is after I’d finished the first draft I sent it to a fairly wide number, a dozen or so friends from various backgrounds, including several dear Jewish friends, and got some wonderful feedback from them. And I, as you say, I ended up quoting some of them in the next draft.

Q. The complexity of your calling. I mean, how did a seminary guy end up in medical school and then a guy that just finished medical school end up in broadcasting? And how in the heck did Dr. Knowles play a role in all that?
A. Well you know, as I look back on it even now, it’s kind of an amazing story. I can’t fully answer why I left the idea of ministry to go to medical school except to say that during seminary I found my exposure to the world of medicine, and what doctors did in that world, to be very appealing. Decided to go for it. I was married, but we had no children. My wife was willing to support me. I was able to get into medical school and so I did it. And fully expecting to be a small-town family doctor, that was sort of my dream. And yet instead I ended up doing this. And that happened, as you say, because of a man named Dr. John Knowles. I ended up in Boston ¢€œ my wife is from this area ¢€œ and ended up at Mass General Hospital where I became friends with this Dr. Knowles, who was then head of the hospital. He also happened to be part of a Harvard group that took over the operation of the local ABC station in 1972, and one day he asked me if I would host this little half-hour program they were going to do on medicine for the public. And so I said I’d give it a try, and that’s literally how I got started. And if it hadn’t been for him, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing today.

And the rest is history. We’re going to be back with more of our guest, Dr. Timothy Johnson. Many of you know him through watching his health reports on ABC News. You now get a chance to hear the rest of the story in his book, Finding God in the Questions, published by InterVarsity. We’ll be right back.

(Break)

Well this is Dick Staub back with you. We’re visiting with Dr. Timothy Johnson. His book is Finding God in the Questions.

Q. And not surprisingly, the seminary graduate turned physician turned broadcaster has encountered within the medical community and the scientific community the most foundational questions about the existence of God, whether the universe is an accident, how humans got here. And fascinatingly, during your career we’ve seen so many scientific discoveries that have actually helped us grapple with and understand the theological implications of those questions from a scientific perspective. Your book starts with these most rigorous questions about the intellectual sensibility of faith in a scientific age. And you start with questions about whether the universe is an accident or not. Just real quickly, give us a thumbnail of a few of the high points for you in wrestling with that question.
A. Well you know, there’s an even more basic question, of course, that I eventually get to which is, Why is there something rather than nothing? When you stop and think about it ¢€œ of course we absolutely and understandably take this world of ours for granted in terms of its everyday presence ¢€œ but there’s nothing that says that it has to be, that there has to be something. And so if you start with that question, then I think the very next question becomes. Is the kind of a world that we do have an experience and now, as you say, understand so much better although it’s even more mysterious in our understanding than we did 30/40 years ago? But is this kind of world more likely to have happened by accident or by design? By chance or by intelligence? And you know, at one point I point out that it’s kind of amazing, when you think about it ¢€œ maybe you don’t think it is but I do ¢€œ that we wouldn’t for a minute look at objects of everyday life, the television in our room or a vase on the table, or whatever, and say, Oh, 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.

Q. Yeah. And you deal, I think, really wonderfully with all the issues of probability. And it’s one of the encouraging signs for me because I’ve thought that this debate about science and faith was one that needed more public square engagement, and it’s happening now. There’s very interesting conversations going on at virtually every intellectual level about the issues of design and probability and how it all fits together, and it’s an exciting part of the story. And I think you’ve done a really wonderful job of helping people kind of sort through that and see how it’s helping us answer questions like, Is the universe an accident? The questions of how we got here. And you talk about fundamental constants and the anthropic principle and DNA.
A. Well, I mean 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, the most kind of an amazing structure that we could ever possibly imagine. We couldn’t imagine it on our own, to be blunt. And so I describe that in some detail, and end up saying that not only do I believe that the universe is an example of so-called intelligent design, but that the human body and the human spirit are even more remarkable. And just to, you know, give you one little kind of an example, when you bring up DNA. The compacting ability, for example, of DNA. All the information that is needed to run each of us, as a very complex organism, weighs less than a few trillionths of a gram. And here’s another kind of little factoid that just blows my mind every time I come across it. 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. Now¢â‚¬¦

Q. No, absolutely mind-boggling.
A. Unimaginable.

Q. And it’s been so exciting to me to see these discoveries and to see the way they have both amplified and made more complex the questions that we ask, as people of faith.
A. Right.

Q. You get into some interesting stuff about humans and the issue of apparent moral law that’s written in our hearts. And then on the scientific front some recent research into the idea that we are actually hardwired to ask questions about God.
A. Yes. And I certainly don’t want to overdo the state of that evidence and convey that it’s complete or final, but it’s suggestive. And there are several scientists who have worked on this. But I refer to a couple from Philadelphia who particularly have looked at brain scans and tried to correlate certain areas of the brain that light up, as it were, in scans during religious activity. It’s just one small hint of this possibility of being hardwired for a relationship to God. Again, these are pieces of evidence. They are not final and convincing and, ultimately, I would say I can’t prove the existence of God in a traditional scientific way, but neither can scientists prove the non-existence of God. It’s an open question and I think the hints that we have now from modern science weigh very much in the direction of design.

Q. And what I like about that section of the book is it’s written in a way that it kind of allows a scientific mind to kind of work through the data in an organized fashion and, at least at the end of the day say, hm, maybe this is worth exploring. And that’s kind of, I think, the most useful approach. Once you reach some preliminary conclusions that it’s worth discussing the existence of God, then you get into questions about what God is like and you start talking about the Bible and organized religion. And again, this is another area where the nature of inquiry is such that there’s a lot of open discussion going on. You talk about the Jesus Seminar, you take us back to Josephus, for goodness sakes, in my lifetime and yours, Nag Hammadi, the Dead Sea Scrolls. How do you want to help people work through the role of the Bible and its usefulness for contemporary human inquiry about God?
A. Well, it’s obvious that modern secular people will not simply take the “authority of the Bible” as a given. In other words, people who are raised in our secular age without belief are not going to simply say, Oh, it’s in the Bible well then it must be true. And 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. And 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. Now, 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 I think imbedded in the gospels we find in 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.

Q. You know, I was reminded in your section on “What Did Jesus Teach,” I kind of wrote in the margin of your book, Read them, exclamation point. I mean, the most basic starting point for a secular mind, really, or even a person of faith today, would be to actually read the gospels, because when you read them, there are surprises there. What are some of the things that you think surprise the secular mind about who Jesus is?
A. Well¢â‚¬¦

Q. And what he taught?
A. And I’ll just back up by saying that, as you know from reading it, I really for the first time in my life in preparing this book, read the gospel straight through. I’ve read them hundreds of times in bits and pieces, but never had read them straight through. And that was a remarkable experience for me. And what I think, you get an overview, a feel that you can’t get in any other way. And several things emerge. First of all, and clearly, Jesus taught a lot about how we are to relate to the material world that we live in. Second only in terms of the amount of space devoted to the kingdom of God is his teachings about possessions and wealth and money. And there’s no way you can avoid that. I mean, you can hide for a little bit, but it’ll come right back at you at another portion of the gospel. And so that comes across so clearly when you read them straight through. And the other thing that I think comes across so clearly is the way in which Jesus really 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.

I’ll tell you what, we’re going to pick up there when we come back. We’re visiting with Dr. Timothy Johnson, and his new book is Finding God in the Questions. Don’t go away, we’ll be right back.

(Break)

Well this is Dick Staub back with you. We’re visiting with Dr. Timothy Johnson.

Q. And we were just reflecting on his chapter on What Did Jesus Teach, where there are some real surprises. And you quote Scott Peck, who hadn’t actually sat down and read through the whole New Testament, or at least the gospels, until he was 40 years old. I was reminded of an interview I heard with a fellow talk show host at the NBC affiliate who was interviewing Bishop Spong actually, on his book on fundamentalism, and they were having a great old time just ripping the Bible apart. And afterwards I said, Chris, you know, have you ever actually read the Bible? And she said no. And I said, you know, it’s not like you. You read every book of every guest that you ever have on this show, and yet you are making all these comments about what the Bible does and doesn’t say having never read it. And I’m sure you’ve had that experience as well in your broadcasting career of people who ¢€œ good people, good-hearted people, people who do their homework ¢€œ who in actuality, like many of our Christian friends, have never actually read what Jesus said.
A. Right.

Q. And that’s why reading it is the starting point. Now, you make a comment about some of the surprising teachings. You talk about the poor, you talk about the fact that we would be surprised about Jesus’ family values. And then you have this comment, “He doesn’t talk about abortion or homosexuality, but he says a lot about divorce.” Now, what do you want the Christian community to hear about reading Jesus in light of the kind of the contemporary culture war that we find ourselves in the midst of?
A. 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? Because that’s what they read about in the papers. When the papers record, you know, the meetings of church groups, they only talk about those fiery debates and not all the other things that churches and denominations do. And so 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, as I point out, that the person that we follow in all of this, said nothing about either one of those. I mean, 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.

Q. Now, you move from Jesus’ teachings which, frankly a lot of people, secular people, find kind of interesting and engaging, to who Jesus was, which is where the contemporary secular skeptic tends to have more serious questions. And you concentrate your thoughts on who Jesus was around three issues: miracles, and the crucifixion, and the resurrection. What were you wanting to get at? What are the central issues that you’re concerned about when we ask the question, Who is Jesus?
A. Well, what I was trying to say to my secular friends, who I constantly had in mind as I wrote this book, was that you don’t have to start with these issues and feel that you have full intellectual answers to these issues to be a follower of Jesus, because his original followers didn’t. I mean, they didn’t sit down and analyze miracles and/or figure out the meaning of the resurrection or the crucifixion. They didn’t even experience the crucifixion and resurrection before, as they became his followers. So I’m trying to say to people, here are some things to think about, and I’ll tell you what I believe about them, but just start being a follower and these things will fall into place. I think that’s what has happened to me and has happened to so many others. I think there are certainly defensible answers to the questions of miracles. The crucifixion, I think, is wide open to various interpretations. There is not just one party line, be it Mel Gibson or anybody else. And when it comes to the resurrection, I think there’s good evidence for it, very good evidence for it, and I believe in it, but I understand that I can’t prove it scientifically. So I’m trying to say to people, Look at these things but don’t start there.

Q. How do those issues provide the context in which you answer the question, Is Jesus divine? Is he God? Is he the Son of God? Uniquely the Son of God.
A. Well, and at the very end of the section I come to that question. And I say, I believe Jesus is the Son of God, but not in a kind of biological sense in which the creeds sometimes make us think. I think if you think of it biologically, you know, it becomes a mindbender. I think of it in terms of the fact that Jesus was the most complete, fullest revelation we have of God, and in that sense he was the Son of God. And I end up, as you know, quoting from N.T. Wright, which I think is one of the most remarkable quotes I’ve ever read anywhere, in which he basically says, you know, when you ask that question you’ve got it the wrong way around, because you presume we know what God is like. And we really don’t. So what we’re saying is that Jesus is, that God is like Jesus. And that’s what we mean when we say Jesus is the Son of God. Don’t think of it in terms of a biological issue, think of it in terms of a relational issue, and that I think liberates you to think about it in a much broader way.

Q. Now you then get into a description of your concern about the way we think about salvation and the glibness of the language of born-again and saved, and so forth. And you have this really wonderful comment where you’re talking about, you know, what it means to be saved and how it relates to other religions. And you say, you know, let’s be honest. If I was born in India I probably would have been a Hindu. What did you want your friends to understand about what salvation is and about why you are a Christian as a path to God?
A. Obviously this is one of the great mysteries of spiritual life. How does a cosmic God reveal himself to us in a way that allows us free choice and doesn’t overwhelm us, doesn’t bring us to our knees in servitude? I mean, in an earlier section of the book I say, Wouldn’t it be wonderful if God just rent the sky some day and came out in blazing glory so that there would be no question? Everybody would bow down. But of course the downside of that is we would be bowing down in servitude, not in free will and free choice. And so God has chosen to reveal himself, I believe, in many different ways to many different peoples. And I think Paul eludes to that in the first chapter of Romans. But I believe that God, in historical time, revealed himself most completely in the person of Jesus. And I believe that to be true, and I have found that to be the experience that has led my life and formed my life and so I speak about it, but I leave it up to God to make judgments about how others have found him.

Q. You move into your third section having kind of wrestled through some issues of the existence of God, what God is like, who Jesus is, and so forth, to the actual bottom line, What Difference Does It Make? And you get into some very interesting interaction around the Sermon on the Mount. And you come back to this issue of money. And personally I found that refreshing, simply because it’s kind of the elephant in the room within evangelicalism. I mean, people don’t want to talk about the fact that we’re upwardly mobile suburbanites who are, you know, financially blessed in a world where there’s still a lot of poverty, and the Sermon on the Mount can make people very uncomfortable. You yourself expressed some personal wrestling with that issue.
A. Oh, no question about it. It’s, aside from various intellectual issues, it is clearly the most difficult issue for me emotionally because, unexpectedly, I have made much more money than I ever thought I would signing out to be a parish minister, obviously. And so what do I do with this and how do I live according to the teachings of Jesus? And you know, I’ve tried to do it in some systematic ways by tithing, or certainly even more than tithing. I mentioned that I have a good friend and we get together and share our income tax returns every year to encourage each other to give more. But I have never given ¢â‚¬Ëœtil 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.

We’re going to pick up with some concluding comments from our guest, Dr. Timothy Johnson. You know him from ABC News, Good Morning America, and other assignments as a journalist and as a medical professional. Now you’re hearing the rest of the story. He’s also an assisting minister at a local church in Massachusetts and the author of Finding God in the Questions, describing himself as a follower of Jesus. We’ll be back with some concluding comments right after this.

(Break)

Well this is Dick Staub back with you. We’re visiting with Dr. Timothy Johnson. His spiritual journey is told in the book, Finding God in the Questions, published by InterVarsity.

Q. I’ve already mentioned I think it would be a wonderful book for you to give to a seeking friend who finds themselves in a life with more questions than answers and would like to hear from someone who’s had a similar journey. Tim, I want to ask you a question. When Bob Buford wrote the book, Halftime ¢€œ I don’t know if you’re familiar with it ¢€œ
A. I’m familiar with Bob, I haven’t read that particular book.

Q. And basically he says, I got, you know, to a certain point in my life where I had already experienced success and I realized I wanted significance. And I decided to set out to discover what it would mean to live the significant life. You’re now writing a book at the age of 65 and saying, you know, as I look back on my life ¢€œ and I really want to rigorously examine my faith ¢€œ I’m realizing these are some of the issues that emerge. And even in the area of financial blessing you’re saying, I’m really having to rethink my own life on that front. What do you want to say to the younger person starting out. In other words, if Timothy Johnson knew when he set out on life’s road with his lovely wife, and fell into this material blessing, would you be doing things differently, you know, in the ramp up to 65 knowing what you know now?
A. That’s really a provocative and a profound question. And I don’t know that it’s possible to ever answer that honestly. I mean, it’s easy for me to say, Sure, you know, if I did it over again I’d do this and that, but I doubt it. I suspect I would have done pretty much the same as I have done, given the circumstances I was in. And I don’t mean to say that that was all bad, by any means. I think I have tried to use the gifts I’ve been given and develop them, and was always conscious of trying to be of service to others and use the resources I have in a wise and compassionate way. But I do think when you reach toward the end of life you realize that, you know, that isn’t¢â‚¬¦ The goals you had as a young person, taking your talents, developing them, becoming educated, getting a job, etc., are no longer applicable. And so you have a kind of a unique opportunity now, with whatever time you have left, to do some other kinds of things. And that’s what I’m thinking through.

Q. The reason I ask the question is, you know, we know Jesus was 33 years old when he died. You know, he was challenging young people to do things with their life that I think he still challenges us to do.
A. And I’m not saying for a minute that our faith shouldn’t affect our choices throughout our entire lives. I think they should. But I do think we have different choices at different stages. And now I’m facing some of them.

Q. Absolutely. You talk about the questions of whether God is in control and providence. And you tell a really wonderful story about your first child, Nolden. And interestingly enough, you and I were both in Indonesia in 1968. What are the odds of that?
A. Is that right? That’s remarkable.

Q. Just a few years after the revolution.
A. Where were you?

Q. Well, I was in Kalimantan for a month. I was in Bali for about a month, and I was in Java for a couple of months.
A. Interesting.

Q. But you were there with your wife on a medical mission. And tell folks the story of Nolden and what he teaches you about the providence of God.
A. Well, very briefly, we went there for four months, between my junior and senior years of medical school, on a fellowship program that supported us if we would work in a very small rural medical setting. And we had to arrange for an American doctor to be our mentor. And I had many medical missionary friends and we signed up with Dr. Phil Anderson who was working in Indonesia. And when we arrived there he jokingly said he had a little boy picked out for us. And we laughed because we had no intention of starting a family. We financially, and otherwise, were not ready to start a family. And we became acquainted with this little 18-month old boy who had been abandoned on the steps of the hospital. And after about three weeks I took him to a birthday party, where my wife met him for the first time, and we brought him back to our room that night to give him a bath because he was kind of dirty from playing around in the hospital grounds. And the next morning when it was time to take him back to the hospital we looked at each other and said, Let’s adopt him, and that was it. He was our son. And so we had this wonderfully unexpected experience of bringing back an 18-month old boy. It was a difficult process, in terms of government and immigration service and all of that, but he’s now 37 and he and his wife have a child, our only grandchild, and he’s a furniture designer, and he’s a great joy in our life. And so I tell that story, as you say, in the context of providence to say, Was it God’s will that we should lead to, Nancy and I, and we should go to Indonesia just at the time he was being abandoned? And I don’t come to that conclusion. I don’t believe that God kind of deals in the details of our lives, but sets out a pathway for us through the scriptures and through the life and teachings of Jesus. And if we follow him and make certain choices, I think we increase our chances of having these kinds of things happen. I mean, I’m not saying that if we hadn’t arrived Nolden’s life would have been doomed, but I’m saying that because we were both committed to following Jesus we made certain choices that we wouldn’t have otherwise made. And it led to this kind of an outcome.

Q. You ask the question, Can we bet on the heart of God? And you set it up around Pascal’s wager and the parable of the final judgment, which is another passage of scripture that I think would surprise people if they read it and took it seriously. And you use Kiplee, your daughter, as an illustration of how people can actually live out the issues that mattered to Jesus in the way he talked about the final judgment.
A. Well, it’s an amazing piece of scripture. It’s my favorite ¢€œ if I dare use that word ¢€œ passage of scripture, the description of judgment in Matthew 25, because I find it, on the one hand, both so frightening in terms of its demands, but so liberating in other ways because, when you read through it, as I do with a particular eye, you all of a sudden start to see what’s not in that passage. I mean, I point out that Jesus talked about judgment and he doesn’t say anything about the creeds, memorizing Bible verses, about the social issues that we spend so much time on. He says nothing even about being formally religious. You know, reading the Bible, praying, etc. He says what’s going to separate the sheep from the goats is how you treat the least among us. And that really is phenomenal when you think about it, because we focus on all this other stuff. And Jesus focuses on how we treat the least of us. Because 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 ¢€œ I wish she were and I pray that some day she might be ¢€œ 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 days, takes care of handicapped people. According to the portrait of judgment, she’s going to do better on that day than I am.

Q. You know, you end by talking about the Sermon on the Mount as an alternative way of living. And you talk about a private conversation you had with someone who’s interviewed a lot of famous and wealthy people who basically said that a lot of them are really unhappy. And you’re suggesting that we shouldn’t look at the Sermon on the Mount as kind of an interesting and provocative set of ideas, but that we actually ought to consider rethinking how we live our lives and what it is that would bring us real joy in our life.
A. I think it’s a standard that we constantly hold before us. We will always fall short, but we should never give up. And what I think Jesus is describing in that sermon is the joy of service to others. And I say in my own life, those have been my most joyful moments, when I’m able to do that. And so I think the Sermon on the Mount is not only a goal, but an actual blueprint to try to follow in our everyday life.

Q. When you were at Augustana you entered an oratory competition and you gave a speech about Albert Schweitzer. And now it’s come back full circle to haunt you. Your epilogue gives us a little glimpse of how Timothy Johnson is rethinking life through the eyes of Albert Schweitzer.
A. Well, it is remarkable that I, you know¢â‚¬¦ He was a hero of mine as a young person and a college student. And then I sort of forgot about him. You know, he was always in the back of my head but I never paid much attention. And then about a year ago I was asked, by a very dear friend who’s head of the Schweitzer Fellowship Program, to help him do a little promotional videotape. And in so doing I became reacquainted again with his life, his remarkable life. Here’s a man who had three earned doctorates and all kinds of potential fame and fortune and at age 30 gave it all up to go to medical school and then to go and establish a hospital in West Africa in the jungles. And that’s where he spent most of the next 52 years, the remaining years of his life. He died there at age 90 and is buried there. And you know, he was a real doubter in many ways and has written a lot of remarkable books about theology and Biblical studies, but he never doubted the spirit of Jesus calling him to serve others. And so I hold him up as an example of the way in which, even though we may have questions, we can follow Jesus enough to find the right kind of answers.

Very interesting. Thank you so much for your honesty and for taking on the tough questions and sharing from your journey. The book is Finding God in the Questions. Dr. Timothy Johnson has been our guest. You can pick this up online or at your local bookstore. It’s published by InterVarsity. Again, Dr. Timothy Johnson, Finding God in the Questions. We’ll be right back.

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