In 1993 I was paid a visit in my home in London by an Irish writer, Colm Toibin, who was gathering material for a book on Catholicism in Europe. Toibin himself had lost his faith and seemed surprised when I told him that I believed not just in God but also in such difficult notions as Hell and Transubstantiation.
He asked if it had ever occurred to me that my faith in God came from “something personal, some need within myself,” and later described my reaction thus:
He held my gaze as I asked this question. He looked into the distance and nodded. Yes, that was possible, his father had been a powerful and authoritarian figure. He returned my gaze again. He had obviously considered the idea and it did not seem to disturb him.
Behind Toibin’s question was the assumption that a psychological “explanation” for a belief or an action somehow makes it invalid. A learned rejection of such a hypothesis in the context of Catholic faith is to be found in the work of the Jesuit psychologist, W. W. Meissner, in particular his biography of Ignatius of Loyola. It is nonetheless a common source of skepticism among those raised in the Catholic faith. Baptized in infancy, raised by Catholic parents and educated in Catholic schools, they cannot remember how they came to believe in God. They are easily persuaded that their faith cannot be genuine unless they have passed through the ordeal of doubt.
I have never at any moment doubted the existence of God. I was baptized a Catholic because my mother, when studying music in Cologne in the late 1920s, was so impressed by the faith of the Rhinelanders that she became a Catholic upon her return to Great Britain. A year later she met my father, Herbert Read, who was then and always remained a determined agnostic. “It is a genuine puzzle to me,” he wrote in his autobiography, “how anyone with a knowledge of the comparative history of religions can retain an exclusive belief in the tenets of his particular sect.”
In deference to my mother’s continuing religious beliefs, he agreed that his children should be baptized and raised in the Catholic religion. Later, when we lived in rural Yorkshire, he played almost no role in our upbringing, retreating to his book-lined study where he wrote his books. He was a figure of awe to us all: he had been decorated for gallantry in World War I, knighted for “services to literature,” and at the time of our childhood was famous throughout the world as one of the foremost critics of the modern movement in art. When he did emerge from his study, he was always patient, kind, and just.
My Catholic mother, by contrast, was passionate, irascible, and vindictive — a combined impresario and primadonna treated her children as supporting actors in the drama of her life. Isolated in the English countryside not just by the geographical location of our home but by the lines of demarcation then drawn between the different social classes, we only escaped from her domineering affection into the bleak buildings and harsh environment of the boarding school at Ampleforth run by Benedictine monks.
My earliest memory of any mention of God predates this period and supports the hypothesis that He was merely a projection of my super-ego. I was surprised, aged six or so, to discover that the words God and guard were not the same: in Britain a guard is not just a soldier, but the august uniformed official in charge of a train.
However, my reverence for authority did not extend to the monks at Ampleforth. I loathed school from the start. The only point of beauty that I remember was the Host in the Monstrance at Benediction. Thus, my first memory of adoring God was in my veneration of that circle of white in the center of flaming gold.
My childish faith was also impressed by the heroic past of Catholics in the North of England. The only popular rising against the Protestant Reformation, The Pilgrimage of Grace, had started in Yorkshire — an army of the devout marching to London under a banner depicting the Host. Its leaders were executed, the first of many martyrs for the Catholic faith. Aged fifteen, I adopted Ss. John Fisher and Thomas More as my patrons and wrote metaphysical poems, but I grew no fonder of the monks — almost certainly because they compared unfavorably with my beloved father and appeared to have so insolently usurped his role.
This adolescent anticlericalism did not lead me to lose faith in God. It proved strong enough to withstand the assault that came when in 1958 I went up to Cambridge to study “moral sciences,” a mix of philosophy, logic, ethics, and psychology. The faculty at that time was dominated by the narrowest understanding of what philosophy should involve. Seminars were spent discussing whether we could be sure of the existence of the chairs upon which we sat. The sacred texts of the department were books like Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico Philosophicus, Bertrand Russell’s Principia Mathematica, and A.J. Ayer’s Language, Truth and Logic.
Worse than the aridity of the subject was the unquestioning skepticism of my fellow students. They did not just sneer at me for my beliefs, but also marveled at my naiveté in suggesting answers to such patently meaningless questions as “is there a God?” Less clever than they were, and with no confidence in my skills in apologetics, I nevertheless refused to share their doubts. Discussing the proofs of the existence of our chairs seemed as futile as arguing over the number of angels who can fit on the head of a pin. I abandoned my study of philosophy and transferred to the faculty of history.
Though he never said so, I was later told of my father’s astonishment that I did not lapse at this stage in my life. However, while I still loved and revered him quite as much as I had done as a child, I had come to appreciate the limitations of his own beliefs. They had been described in a number of books, and were first a philosophical anarchism which to me amounted to a sentimental nostalgia for England’s rural past; and more significantly an almost idolatrous veneration of art, in particular the modern art which in its inception had released the energies of a number of great painters and sculptures but at this time (the early 1960s) had degenerated into a movement of charlatans and mediocrities — something which my father privately recognized, and which filled him with gloom. His increasing melancholia in his later years confirmed in my eyes the falsity of Keats’s advice that:
‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’ — that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
But if my God had survived the assault of secular skepticism, how does it stand up to the more insidious challenge implicit in the question put by Colm Toibin — that while I may have consciously rejected the agnosticism of my father, nonetheless his influence on my unconscious explains my faith in a one true God?
My retort is to accept that what he says is true: that just as my mother’s tyrannical nature has always made it difficult for me to form a mental image of the Virgin Mary, so the presence of a just and loving father made it easy for me to believe in God.
But to explain my faith in this way is not, I suggest, to explain it away. Quite to the contrary. We learn from the book of Genesis, which the late Pope John Paul II described in Mulieris dignitatem as “the immutable basis of all Christian anthropology,” that man is made in the image and likeness of God. It therefore follows that God must have some of the qualities of man.
It is considered courteous now to say that this “man” is the “man-and-woman” of Genesis 1:27; but as St. Paul reminded the Corinthians, it is the man, not the woman, who “is the image of God and reflects God’s glory” (1 Cor., 11:7). Thus the qualities that we ascribe to God such as “power and might” are also those qualities that are conventionally, and perhaps properly, found in men rather than women.
In the New Testament we learn from Jesus that it is particularly in studying man as parent that we can approach an understanding of the nature of the one true God. Jesus constantly addresses God as his Father, and tells us that he is our Father too. It is therefore true to his teaching to see in a natural father who is wise, gentle, and just the proper paradigm for the one, true God. “No one has ever seen God: it is the only Son, who is nearest to the Father’s heart, who has made him known” (Jn 1, 18).