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The Mystery Of Evil
by [?]

I was staying the other day in a large old country-house. One morning, my host came to me and said: “I should like to show you a curious thing. We have just discovered a cellar here that seems never to have been visited or used since the house was built, and there is the strangest fungoid growth in it I have ever seen.” He took a big bunch of keys, rang the bell, gave an order for lights to be brought, and we went together to the place. There were ranges of brick-built, vaulted chambers, through which we passed, pleasant, cool places, with no plaster to conceal the native brick, with great wine-bins on either hand. It all gave one an inkling of the change in material conditions which must have taken place since they were built; the quantity of wine consumed in eighteenth-century days must have been so enormous, and the difficulty of conveyance so great, that every great householder must have felt like the Rich Fool of the parable, with much goods laid up for many years. In the corner of one of the great vaults was a low arched door, and my friend explained that some panelling which had been taken out of an older house, demolished to make room for the present mansion, had been piled up here, and thus the entrance had been hidden. He unlocked the door, and a strange scent came out. An abundance of lights were lit, and we went into the vault. It was the strangest scene I have ever beheld; the end of the vault seemed like a great bed, hung with brown velvet curtains, through the gaps of which were visible what seemed like white velvet pillows, strange humped conglomerations. My friend explained to me that there had been a bin at the end of the vault, out of the wood of which these singular fungi had sprouted. The whole place was uncanny and horrible. The great velvet curtains swayed in the current of air, and it seemed as though at any moment some mysterious sleeper might be awakened, might peer forth from his dark curtains, with a fretful enquiry as to why he was disturbed.

The scene dwelt in my mind for many days, and aroused in me a strange train of thought; these dim vegetable forms, with their rich luxuriance, their sinister beauty, awoke a curious repugnance in the mind. They seemed unholy and evil. And yet it is all part of the life of nature; it is just as natural, just as beautiful to find life at work in this gloomy and unvisited place, wreathing the bare walls with these dark, soft fabrics. It was impossible not to feel that there was a certain joy of life in these growths, sprouting with such security and luxuriance in a place so precisely adapted to their well-being; and yet there was the shadow of death and darkness about them, to us whose home is the free air and the sun. It seemed to me to make a curious parable of the baffling mystery of evil, the luxuriant growth of sin in the dark soul. I have always felt that the reason why the mystery of evil is so baffling is because we so resolutely think of evil as of something inimical to the nature of God; and yet evil must derive its vitality from him. The one thing that it is impossible to believe is that, in a world ruled by an all-powerful God, anything should come into existence which is in opposition to his Will. It is impossible to arrive at any solution of the difficulty, unless we either adopt the belief that God is not all-powerful, and that there is a real dualism in nature, two powers in eternal opposition; or else realise that evil is in some way a manifestation of God. If we adopt the first theory, we may conceive of the stationary tendency in nature, its inertness, the force that tends to bring motion to a standstill, as one power, the power of Death; and we may conceive of all motion and force as the other power, the quickening spirit, the power of life. But even here we are met with a difficulty, for when we try to transfer this dualism to the region of humanity, we see that in the phenomena of disease we are confronted, not with inertness fighting against motion, but with one kind of life, which is inimical to human life, fighting with another kind of life which is favourable to health. I mean that when a fever or a cancer lays hold of a human frame, it is nothing but the lodging inside the body of a bacterial and an infusorial life which fights against the healthy native life of the human organism. There must be, I will not say a consciousness, but a sense of triumphant life, in the cancer which feeds upon the limb, in spite of all efforts to dislodge it; and it is impossible to me to believe that the vitality of those parasitical organisms, which prey upon the human frame, is not derived from the vital impulse of God. We, who live in the free air and the sun, have a way of thinking and speaking as if the plants and animals which develop under the same conditions were of a healthy type, while the organisms which flourish in decay and darkness, such as the fungi of which I saw so strange an example, the larva; which prey on decaying matter, the soft and pallid worm-like forms that tunnel in vegetable ooze, were of an unhealthy type. But yet these creatures are as much the work of God as the flowers and trees, the brisk animals which we love to see about us. We are obliged in self-defence to do battle with the creatures which menace our health; we do not question our right to deprive them of life for our own comfort; but surely with this analogy before us, we are equally compelled to think of the forms of moral evil, with all their dark vitality, as the work of God’s hand. It is a sad conclusion to be obliged to draw, but I can have no doubt that no comprehensive system of philosophy can ever be framed, which does not trace the vitality of what we call evil to the same hand as the vitality of what we call good. I have no doubt myself of the supremacy of a single power; but the explanation that evil came into the world by the institution of free-will, and that suffering is the result of sin, seems to me to be wholly inadequate, because the mystery of strife and pain and death is “far older than any history which is written in any book.” The mistake that we make is to count up all the qualities which seem to promote our health and happiness, and to invent an anthropomorphic figure of God, whom we array upon the side which we wish to prevail. The truth is far darker, far sterner, far more mysterious. The darkness is his not less than the light; selfishness and sin are the work of his hand, as much as unselfishness and holiness. To call this attitude of mind pessimism, and to say that it can only end in acquiescence or despair, is a sin against truth. A creed that does not take this thought into account is nothing but a delusion, with which we try to beguile the seriousness of the truth which we dread; but such a stern belief does not forbid us to struggle and to strive; it rather bids us believe that effort is a law of our natures, that we are bound to be enlisted for the fight, and that the only natures that fail are those that refuse to take a side at all.

There is no indecision in nature, though there is some illusion. The very star that rises, pale and serene, above the darkening thicket, is in reality a globe wreathed in fiery vapour, the centre of a throng of whirling planets. What we have to do is to see as deep as we can into the truth of things, not to invent paradises of thought, sheltered gardens, from which grief and suffering shall tear us, naked and protesting; but to gaze into the heart of God, and then to follow as faithfully as we can the imperative voice that speaks within the soul.