C. S. Lewis

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Theism and Humanism by Arthur J. Balfour


Theism and Humanism: The Book that Influenced C. S. Lewis
by Arthur J. Balfour

In 1962, Christian Century magazine asked the well-known writer, C. S. Lewis, to name the books that had most influenced his thought. Among the ten he listed was Arthur J. Balfour's Theism and Humanism (1915). This was no passing whim. Almost twenty years earlier in 1944, Lewis had lamented in "Is Theology Poetry" that Theism and Humanism was "a book too little read."

Many others shared Lewis' enthusiasm. When Balfour gave the original lectures on which the book was based, some 2,000 people crowded into Bute Hall at the University of Glasgow on a weekday winter afternoons to cheer and laugh. Even more telling, they kept coming back, week after week for all ten speeches. Even the staid The Times of London covered every lecture, commented on the "wildly enthusiastic" audiences, and noted the great diversity of those attending from ordinary citizens and students to professors.

Unfortunately, until now the book hasn't been easy to find. Copies have only been available on the used market and were thus rare and relatively expensive. This newly typeset and enhanced edition makes the book inexpensive and widely available.

Balfour was a gifted writer and perhaps the most intelligent British Prime Minister of the twentieth century. He was also well-respected in the scientific community--in 1904 served as President of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. During World War One he replaced Winston Churchill as First Lord of the Admiralty and went on to become Foreign Secretary. In the latter office he was responsible for the 1917 Balfour Declaration committing Great Britain to the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. It is no exaggeration to say that Israel owes its existence to Balfour.

Theism and Humanism is based on a 1914 Gifford Lecture that Balfour gave at the University of Glasgow. All the original text is included along with over 50 pages of additional material. There are eleven sketches of Balfour adapted from political cartoons in Punch magazine. There are four appendices taken from his other writings, including the marvelous "A Catechism for Naturalism" (which sent the arch-agnostic Thomas Huxley, better known as "Darwin's Bulldog," into a fit of rage). There's also a glossary of people and terms mentioned in the book and a detailed index. Finally, this new edition includes brief quotes from Balfour's other writings to highlight what he is saying. The second edition improves on the first by adding to each chapter in the original, the extensive coverage that The Times of London gave to Balfour's original speech. It also includes in an appendix three letters by C. S. Lewis on themes closely related to Balfour's book.

Balfour's topic is naturalism, the belief that all that exists are natural processes. He challenges those who believe in it to come up with a rationale for what they hold dearest--human reason, human rights, and the importance of art--based solely on naturalism. He believes that cannot be done and summarizes his book this way: "My desire has been to show that all we think best in human culture, whether associated with beauty, goodness, or knowledge, requires God for its support, that Humanism without Theism loses more than half its value."

If you like philosophy and provocative ideas, this book is perfect for you. The Cambridge-educated Balfour was very knowledgeable about science. (His brother is considered the father of modern embryology.) That makes this book a useful complement to the Oxford-educated Lewis whose specialty was literature. The C. S. Lewis Readers' Encyclopedia notes that: "The thesis and even the language of Balfour's first Gifford lecture permeates the first five chapters of Miracles. It was from Balfour that Lewis derived the self-refutability of naturalism. And Balfour's 'plain man's point of view, the creed of common sense' greatly appealed to Lewis."
I take it as certain that, had no such theory as Natural Selection been devised, nothing would have persuaded mankind that the organic world came into being unguided by intelligence. Chance, whatever chance may mean, would never have been accepted as a solution. Agnosticism would have been scouted as stupidity.

It is not an argument from design, but an argument from value. To emphasise the contrast, it might be called an argument to design. Value (we assert) is lost if design be absent. Value (you will ask) of what? Of our most valuable beliefs, (I answer) and of their associated emotions.

But, whether Huxley be right on this point or I, it is surely impossible for the mass of mankind to maintain, at the cost of much personal loss, an ideal of conduct which science tells us is not merely an evolutionary accident, but an evolutionary mistake; something which was, and is, contrary to the whole trend of the cosmic process which brought us into being, and made us what we are.

My main contention rests, not upon the difficulty of harmonising moral ends in a Godless universe, but upon the difficulty of maintaining moral values if moral origins are purely naturalistic. That they never have been so maintained on any large scale is a matter of historic fact. At no time has the mass of mankind treated morals and religion as mutually independent. They have left this to the enlightened; and the enlightened have (as I think) been wrong.

On this foundation science proceeds to build up a theory of nature by which the foundation itself is shattered. It saws off the branch on which it is supported. It kicks down the ladder by which it has climbed. It dissolves the thing perceived into a remote reality which is neither perceived nor perceivable. It turns the world of common sense into an illusion, and on this illusion it calmly rests its case.

ISBN: 1-58742-005-8 (paperback)
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