PW: Many of your television viewers on ABC News and Good Morning America don't realize that you are an ordained minister as well as a physician.
Timothy Johnson: I would guess that's true, although several times that fact has come up in my work at ABC. I've participated in programs in ways that identified me as a minister also. One time Barbara [Walters] had a 20/20 segment on near-death experiences and kids, and she decided at the last moment to have me be part of it. So a few times, it's come up.
PW: Your other books have primarily dealt with health issues. Why did you want to write about spirituality?
TJ: As I approached my 65th birthday a few years ago, it just triggered a rethinking of where I have been and where I'm going. It was also in response to having so many secular friends and colleagues ask about what I believe. I worked on it in bits and pieces over roughly a four-year period and finished it last year. When I shared it with friends, it fell into [InterVarsity Press publisher] Bob Fryling's hands. He called me that morning, and we talked for about an hour, and I felt an immediate companionship with how he grasped what I wanted to do.
PW: The book tackles some of the major questions that many people have about faith.
TJ: Yes. I can't say that I came up with revolutionary answers, but I certainly was able to refine my thinking on some important questions, such as that of undeserved suffering. I am comfortable living with this unanswerable question, whereas before, I would say that it drove me nuts to think about it. And before, I had trouble with discrepancies in the gospel accounts, and now I've thought that through. Although I haven't come to any final answers, I feel satisfied enough to live with the questions.
PW: The book is subtitled "a personal journey." What about your personal journey led you to write a book about faith and doubt?
TJ: I wanted to convey my struggles with the teachings of the Christian faith. So I do this in a rather personal way by indicating the kinds of questions I've wrestled with through the years: does God exist? What is God like? What difference does it make? Is the universe an accident? Why bother with religion and the Bible? Who was Jesus? Can we bet on the heart of God? I personally have always found my faith journey in asking questions and struggling with doubt. I've always had doubt as part of my faith journey and will until I die.
PW: Please explain this first line: "Writing this book has been an attempt to be totally honest about my religious beliefs for the first time in 40 years."
TJ: As I explain in the book, I was in seminary 40 years ago. In seminary you are forced, by the nature of the experience and the study, to examine what you believe. I remember agonizing about the faith assumptions I had grown up with. Then I ended up in medicine and, unbelievably, in television. So I never really had to believe it [Christian dogma] to that degree because I was not a minister.
PW: Which writers have most influenced your thinking on thorny issues?
TJ: I've spent most of my free time in the last 10 years reading about faith matters and biblical studies. I've read many people—Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan, Raymond Brown, etc. They all contributed in unique ways. One person I found very helpful is Philip Yancey, who models a way of thinking about difficult matters that draws on true, intelligent reflection and personal agony about his life.
PW: Are there any other books on the horizon for you?
TJ: Well, no. But I have this sneaking suspicion that this book is going to lead to other experiences. I've been asked to give the Noble lectures at Harvard this fall. Peter Gomes, who is the current senior minister at Harvard and picks the lecturers, read the book and asked me to do it. I'm going to be coming out the closet about my faith, which will inevitably lead to some changes in my life. So the book may lead to some writing that I haven't anticipated yet. To be blunt, at this point in my life, I don't need money or exposure. All of the proceeds from the book are going to charity. If I find these experiences helpful, I'll do more of them, and if I don't, I won't.