This I Believe

Rothenstein, John


  • John Rothenstein, the director of the Tate Gallery in London, describes the path that led him to the Roman Catholic Churchas an adolescent and why he continues to be part of the Church.
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And now, This I Believe. Here is Edward R. Murrow.
This I Believe. Sir John Rothenstein, director of England’s famous Tate Gallery, was born and brought up in an atmosphere of creative art. While still a young man, as director of the Leeds and Sheffield City Art Galleries, he was given a chance to put into practice the knowledge he had gained from the famous artists who had gathered in his parents’ home. He became director of the Tate Gallery at the age of 37. This is Sir John Rothenstein’s creed.
Early in life, I became a Roman Catholic—so that it would be more relevant to devote the few minutes ahead to explaining how I came to this belief and how it works out in terms of experience, than to paraphrasing what’s so lucidly stated in the Nicene Creed.
I have Roman Catholics among my immediate ancestors. Also Jews and Protestants. But I didn’t inherit dogmatic ideas from any of them. The emphasis in my upbringing was ethical rather than religious. I was sent to a school which was undenominational in constitution and agnostic in spirit.
It was the sermons I heard at school which, in a contrary sort of way, first aroused in me a positive interest in the question of the existence of God. The name of God was a frequent occurrence, and it seemed to be assumed that his existence was of fundamental importance. Yet whenever the preacher’s arguments called for some reference to God’s nature, even the loosest definitions were avoided. Their consistent devotion of an issue that the speakers implied was vital, eventually exasperated me, who—however confused in mind—have ever been drawn to what is lucid and concrete. God was either the creator and the ruler of the universe, or He was not.
In the meanwhile, I attended the headmaster’s scripture class. My attention gradually became fixed upon the distinctness and the frequency with which Jesus claimed to be, in a unique sense, the Son of God and the sharer in His divinity. At the same time, we happened to be taking Hamlet, and I noted with wonder that the Prince of Denmark, a supreme creation of a supreme poetic genius, does not compare in reality, in subtlety, in majesty, even in poetic quality, with the figure who emerges from the four Gospels: the writings of an imaginative fisherman, of a cultivated doctor, of a publican, and of a competent reporter.
But it was Shaw’s Androcles and the Lion that awoke me to the vividness of Christ as an actual living person. It became clear to me that Jesus stated his claim to be God with a clarity and an urgency, which required that it should be accepted or rejected. It couldn’t be ignored.
Presently, there came a time when I found it not possible to believe that such a being could be subject to a delusion of godhead, or could mislead his disciples and, through them, a great part of mankind. For it was all so plain to me that Jesus had ordained the establishment of a church. I lacked both the means and the capacity for research.
But as I read and pondered, I gradually came to recognize that the Roman Catholic Church, for all its manifest imperfections, was, in fact, the church of the Apostles.
I remain what I have always been: an individualist. And I found that except where the barest essentials of their faith are concerned, the issues upon which Catholics differ are infinitely more numerous than those upon which they agree. Much in the public life of the church is, to me, distressing and, indeed, agonizing. Yet the tensions of mind that result, joined to the sacramental life and the landmarks of the faith, make for a unique freedom and independence.
That was Sir John Rothenstein, director of London’s Tate Gallery and a leading British writer and art expert. He holds a commission as Kentucky colonel, dating from his days of teaching at that state’s University. It was the first commission of its kind ever given to a foreigner.