From a Fundamental Christian in Japan to an Agnostic at Duke

How could I have made the impulsive decisions that rocked my turbulent youth? What made me change from a fad-loving teenager collecting popular songs, memorizing major league batting averages, and dreaming of becoming a professional baseball player, into a solemn born-again fundamentalist? I claimed conscientious objector status, and then quit Duke NROTC to enter a pre-ministerial program, only to become an agnostic in less than a year!

Duke Chapel with courtyard              

(Duke University Chapel)

In Religion I at Duke as a pre-ministerial student my faith was barraged by the course. My Professor knew sixteen languages and used them to demonstrate different interpretations of the Old Testament. He shocked me when he announced we knew only a few of the writers who contributed to the Bible. Much of the writing came from ancient oral tradition. Fundamental Christianity had taught me to believe in the literal truth of the miracles in the Bible because preachers told me, “God wrote each word through the author’s inspiration from the Holy Spirit.” My professor had a scientific explanation for many miracles. Some of my beliefs evaporated into uncertainties. My indoctrinators had taken a literal view of the Bible without having studied its history. That great Book seemed far more complex.

Diuek Red Sea Arabs cross at low tide        

(Artist's rendition of Arabs crossing the Red Sea at low tide)

The parting of the Red Sea occurred annually when low tide exposed the red reeds anyone could walk on. Rather than God miraculously parting the sea, as shown in “The Ten Commandments,” the uniqueness of a low tide at the particular time it occurred constituted the miracle that saved the wandering Jewish army. God, referred to as Yahweh in the Old Testament, appeared more like a jealous dictator with a passion for violent death to anyone who broke His rules, especially regarding idol worship. The penalty for adultery and many other “sins,” included stoning to death. However, in Judges 19 we learned that a father offered his virgin daughter and a friend’s daughter to a mob of drunks who gang-raped them, as long as they would not harm his male friend. The next day his friend found his daughter had crawled home and died. This brutal mob rape and murder violated no law and was not criticized as immoral! Removed from a church Bible study, these brutal images seemed repulsive. Previously secure in my evangelical belief the New Testament replaced the Old Testament before the class; could there be two different Gods, one compassionate and the other brutal?My professor took an unprejudiced approach to Religion teaching it more like an archeology, history, or science course. He taught us to let facts and reason lead to our understanding. The challenges he gave us made my beliefs tumble brick-by-brick.

Religion II consisted of a scholarly study of the New Testament. My same Professor taught this course. Each lesson of the ambitious subject matter astounded me. The professor dove into the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John with careful scrutiny like Sherlock Holmes might approach a crime.  In the first week we learned no one knew most of the authors of these books. No named apostle wrote them, but many anonymous writers authored what they had heard over many years. The sources of most passages in the “Gospels,” penned their description more than thirty years after the death of Jesus. The text referred to them as Q1 or Q2 and so on, for each additional writer. Often as many as eight writers with different styles heard, and transcribed events and words that occasionally conflicted with reports of other writers. That such contradictions existed in the “Word of God,” surprised me.

Jesus Image of his Profile          

We learned that the Messiah referred to by the prophet Isaiah as a religious person who would come to save the world, had to possess a list of miraculous prerequisites. According to the existing authorities who interpreted the Bible, he had to have been born from a virgin mother, perform miracles during his lifetime that demonstrated his divinity, die by some gruesome method, arise from the grave three days after his burial, and ascend to God in Heaven. Our professor introduced us to many itinerant holy men who shared these traits according to the beliefs of their followers. One was named Marduk, who had a far larger following than Jesus did. Some worshiped John the Baptist as the Messiah, but he denied those rumors even though he also had far more followers than Jesus did.

  Jesus of Nazareth on the cross            

The professor described the St. James translation as vague where the words used by the author often mangled the translation by misinterpretation because of lack of a scholarly knowledge of the original languages of Hebrew and Greek. For example, the authors that described the virgin birth of Jesus may have changed the meaning of the Hebrew to fit the prophecy of Isaiah. The oldest version of the Septuagint, translated by Jewish scholars into Greek, instead of using the Hebrew word “Bethulah,” which meant virgin in the sense that we understood it, used “Almah,” that meant a “young woman.” Although sometimes used in the sense of a sexually pure woman, it doesn’t correctly interpret the word in its context. Therefore, the virgin birth mentioned in Isaiah 7:14 regarding the coming of the Messiah, represented another example of an opportunity for dogmatically erroneous interpretation. The context of Isaiah 7:14 demonstrates the meaning was probably a pregnant woman, and therefore the term almah intended to refer to a young woman. Isaiah hadn’t prophesied that the child would be born from a virgin, but before the child reached the age of accountability, both Israel and Syria would no longer exist. The “sign” referred to the child, not miraculous conception, and attempted to justify Jesus’ divine birth by claiming fulfillment of a prophecy never made.

Serious doubts about the certainty of the Bible verses I had memorized to shield me from Satan’s influence and ensure my salvation shattered my belief system. No longer believing the literal words of the New Testament from the Saint James’ version, I wondered how people who studied the Bible as we did, could believe the Holy Spirit inspired anyone to write those words? Nevertheless, most of the teachings of Jesus seemed to resonate with meaning for me, whether, or not, they were accurately translated. They challenged us to live a life guided by compassion for the less fortunate, to embrace tolerance towards our enemies, and to love our neighbors. These principles, if put in practice, could transform our world into a paradise that met everyone’s needs in a world without war.

 

Yokosuka Chapel

(Yokosuka Naval Base Chapel where Dan attended Services)

Forced to scrutinize my journey, I began to define a vision of what might occupy the rest of my life: a pursuit of social justice in whatever way I could find appropriate. The pieces fell together through hard work, determination, and a future with a woman who inspired me and calmed my wildness from swirling rapids to a deep river that refreshed and enabled me to continue against all odds.

Dan and Joan with Shiva in Berkeley      

(Joan, Shiva, and Dan, Berkeley 1971)

When my memoir ends in December of 1975, I began looking for other employment because the UFW was close to resolving their cases. The Agricultural Labor Relations Act created a board to resolve farm worker labor disputes the UFW sought.  The damage part of the my Boys Markets civil rights case was resolved after I left the ACLU and Bill Steiner tried the case on issues remaining reported as Knox v. County of Los Angeles (1980) 109 Cal. App. 3d 825, 167 Cal. Rptr. (1980). These Unitarians so impressed me, I visited their society with our family, met extraordinary people, and enjoyed associating with them at Camp DeBenneville Pines. It was this contact that brought me to the Sepulveda Unitarian Society later.

  Sepulveda Unitarian Universalist Society Onion        

(Sepulveda Unitarian Universalist Society "The Onion")

Since I had noticed members of Unitarian churches were strong activists for the UFW as were Catholics, I decided to visit the closest one to me in Sepulveda, known as the “Onion.” Their minister, Farley Wheelwright, and a parishioner named Nick Sedita, led the congregation and others in the nuclear freeze movement, protests against nuclear weapons in the area, and social justice wherever it reared its ugly head. I became the social concerns chairman, joined the choir, and even gave a few “sermons” to the congregation: “The Elusive Quest for Justice,” and “Understanding, Uncovering, and Protesting against Torture.” Joan was in charge of “religious education” of the children. Our kids grew up having a healthy appreciation for nature, peace, music, and respected different races and cultures, and were not intimidated by some fearful God who might send them to an everlasting lake of fire in Hell.

      Dan and Joan 1983

(Joan and Dan 1983)

Having thought I would never set foot in a church again, the enthusiasm Unitarians exhibited for Cesar Chavez’s boycott, peace, social justice, and the interconnectedness of humans with nature, convinced me I had found a path to raise a family who wanted a world free of violence, discrimination, fear, and hatred. I made time in my schedule to coach our children’s soccer, basketball, and baseball games and attend their swimming, gymnastics and equestrian meets, as well as school activities, and speak at their schools on civil rights on career day.

  Brette Elizabeth, Aleksandyr, Sean, (Back) Dan and Joan Lavery (front) 1995

 (Brette, Aleksey, and Sean in back, Dan and Joan in front)

Once I found a path that consumed me with passion I aimed as high as I could. No matter what confronts the reader, my story demonstrates an ordinary person can survive major conflicts, disappointments, injuries, risk of death, and still flourish. If I could wander through that minefield and avoid a mortal blow, anyone with determination can find fulfillment. The indispensable ingredients are feeling enthusiasm for whatever path you choose, having a worthy purpose, and living your life to the fullest.

 

(This is an excerpt from All the Difference, a memoir by Daniel C. Lavery, available at Amazon.com. for purchase or free look inside of the first 6 1/2 chapters at Dan's website at http://www.danielclavery.com and on Amazon's Kindle at http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00BNXHV9Q, and for many electronic outlets at smashwords.com/books/291857. A paperback version was just published at Amazon.com/All the Difference, ISBN 10:1482676532.You may communicate with Dan at djasb@aol.com or facebook.com/danielclavery/)

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About Daniel C. Lavery

Dan’s writing shows his transformation from a child to an athlete and a Duke pre-ministerial student where he began to question ancient and arbitrary dogma. He graduated from Annapolis, navigated a Navy jet, and a ship to Vietnam, fell in love, turned peace activist and a civil rights lawyer for Cesar Chavez's UFW. His memoir, "All the Difference," describes the experiences, some humorous and others deadly, that changed his consciousness from a pawn to an advocate crusading for justice against some of the most powerful forces in America.

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