As medical editor for ABC News and an associate of Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital, Timothy Johnson has found professional success and some level of fame throughout his career.
Now, he’s finding God.
Johnson, who delivered the three William Belden Noble Lectures at the Memorial Church this week (Nov. 15 – 17), drew from his recent spiritual memoir, “Finding God in the Questions: A Personal Journey” (InterVarsity Press, 2004), to share his pilgrimage of faith.
“I have spent most of my adult thinking life wondering about God, believing in God, and having enormous doubts about him,” said Johnson, an ordained minister, Monday night. In that evening’s lecture, called “Finding God in the Universe,” Johnson looked at his relationship with God through a scientific lens.
Johnson introduced his ponderings on God and science with what he called the ultimate question: “As we examine modern science … does it lead to a conclusion that it is more likely that this universe came about by chance or accident or design and purpose?” he said. “Why is there something rather than nothing?”
His own belief, informed by his formidable knowledge in medicine and science and by a strong faith, is that the universe and those of us in it are far too finely tuned to be the result of accident. Despite the historical legacy of scientists working to counter the “design” argument, Johnson believes that modern advances in physics, cosmology, and even biology provide ever stronger evidence that the creation of our universe was guided by the design and purpose that suggests a divine being.
Johnson led the audience through a brief history of the design versus accident debate, from Thomas Aquinas, who “put this argument on the theological map” by making it his fifth proof of the existence of God, through the early scientists who fought to “keep the religious people out of scientific endeavor,” he said.
The discussion came to a head with Charles Darwin and his “Origin of Species,” which changed the course of science in 1859 with its theories of evolution and natural selection. Yet Darwin himself could not offer an explanation for the beginning of life and the universe, Johnson noted. Reading from a letter Darwin wrote to his good friend, noted Harvard botanist Asa Gray, Johnson showed that even Darwin struggled with the tension between chance and design in the creation of the universe.
“I cannot … view this wonderful universe and especially the nature of man and conclude that everything is a result of brute force,” Darwin wrote, concluding that the question was imponderable. “Let each man hope and believe what he can,” he wrote to Gray.
Finding God in the finely tuned universe
Like Darwin, Johnson has a firm footing in and deep curiosity about science; he also wrestles to find God in the misery of the human condition. Yet for him, modern science has only solidified his belief in a universe created with design and purpose.
“As we have learned about the fine-tunings of the origins and the so-called cosmic coincidences that have led to life as we know it, we have learned they are so finely tuned and calibrated that it would be very difficult to come to the conclusion that it would have all happened by chance or by accident,” he said.
The precision of the Big Bang or the way in which carbon-based life emerged because of the resonance of the carbon atom exhibited this fine-tuning, he said.
While the astonishing discoveries of modern science inspire what some might see as almost an act of worship, said Johnson, they do not prove the existence of God. Yet to him, they point strongly toward it.
“The reading of the modern sciences, or physics or cosmology, makes it for me more probable that there is some kind of design or intelligence behind this universe, but leaves me longing for … more information and other ways of finding God,” he concluded.
Fielding audience questions with respondent Rev. Barbara Smith-Moran, co-chair of the Committee on Science, Technology and Faith for the Episcopal Church USA, Johnson fine-tuned some of his beliefs in the face of contemporary issues.
“There is no place in the understanding of science … for religious dogma,” he said. “We must keep science absolutely pure methodologically.” He firmly denied that teaching intelligent design – or its much simpler cousin, creationism – would add anything to the public school science curriculum.
And, hinting at the “moral values” issue he would discuss in his Wednesday evening lecture, “Finding God in Everyday Life,” Johnson expressed his views on stem cell research. They were unequivocal and devoid of the deliberately ambiguous theological questioning with which he approached many of the evening’s other topics.
“The only way we will ever find out whether or not stem cell research holds the promise that so many people believe … is to do the research,” he said. “Therefore, I totally support research on adult and embryonic stem cells.”