Today’s heresy, formed from the Greek henas theos, for “one god,” was coined by the German idealist, Friedrich von Schelling (1775–1854), a formidable purveyor of heresies himself. He wasn’t condemning it, for he imagined it a thing of the past. Henotheism is his word to describe the development of monotheism, in the ancient world. An alternative term might be “monarchical polytheism” — that is, one great and commanding god, with lots of lesser gods in his train. Our classical forebears came to this gradually, with Jupiter emerging as the god-of-gods, and a theological development from Plato to Plotinus. Ancient Indian religion seems to have started from this point, in the Rigveda. It is alleged by some scholars that ancient Hebrew religion was also henotheist, until flattened by a monotheist sledgehammer.

But I am now thinking of Pharaoh Akhenaten of Amarna, the father of Tutankhamen in the eighteenth dynasty of ancient Egypt. His queen (if we omit the rest of his harem) was the beautiful Nefertiti. Together they attempted to found a new religion, by elevating the Sun-god, Aken, above all others in the Egyptian pantheon. Upon ascending the throne, “King Tut” then went about putting the pieces of the old religion back together, and by the nineteenth dynasty, the reputation of Akhenaten could be surmised from references to him in the chronicles as “that criminal,” “the monster,” and so forth.

While I cannot embrace the religion of the ancient Egyptians, I must say I admire their conservatism.

Akhenaten sprang to mind while reading through, this morning, the official English text of Laudato si’. Let me say in passing that I am in approximately complete harmony and agreement with the first 11 paragraphs, and the last 14, and was alarmed only by points scattered through the 221 between them. Or put this another way, I liked the Christian bits. Some of this “spiritual protein” may also be found between the slices, as it were, including fine points echoing Pope Benedict XVI on the human ecology of the family, the preservation of our unborn, basic rights to life. But it was the weight of the invocation of Saint Francis’ old-Umbrian “Canticle of the Sun” (aka “Canticle of the Creatures”) that brought Pharaoh to mind.

For Akhenaten also wrote a canticle of the sun (or, “Great Hymn to the Aten”), which he had all his courtiers singing, transcribing and posting up and down the Nile. More than the canticle of our beloved Saint of Assisi, it might serve as a boilerplate for post-modern environmentalism. As Flinders Petrie, the excavator of Amarna, opined, “If this were a new religion, invented to satisfy our modern scientific conceptions, we could not find a flaw.” Pharaoh’s account of sustainable solar energy is especially au courant; though in hindsight he overlooked the threat of global warming.

Comparisons of the two canticles, twenty-six centuries apart, have sometimes been made, and see also the second Benedic, anima (Psalm 103 Catholic, 104 Protestant), somewhere in the middle. I rather prefer the later essays, which praise nature in her aspect as testimonial to God, than the first which praises her as God. Call it a theological quibble, but there I stand.

To my (cranky) mind, we are in some peril of losing the distinction. Nature is excellent but not perfect, as I am reminded by my back-ache, and a rude parody of Saint Francis I once wrote, when I was young and even badder than I am now. It mentioned things like watching “Brother Eagle tearing Sister Bunny-wabbit’s guts out.” The way we spiritualize and sentimentalize nature, is different in kind from the unambiguously Christ-centred Franciscan poetry, and contributes to misreading it. Rather it is symptomatic of our overly urban, automotive culture, for which nature has become a “nice idea.”

Oddly this was brought home to me, years ago, in a conversation between a slick city girl and a farmer. She said, “It must be wonderful to live the way you do, surrounded by all this life.” He said, “The farmer’s life has more to do with death, actually.”

A balanced view of nature — such as our more rural ancestors enjoyed — will encompass both the beauty of nature, and its redness in tooth and claw; will appreciate a beauty that is transient, that dies. It will also remain conscious of earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, floods, droughts, plagues, and their various downstream effects; and a history of “climate change” that long preceded human habitation. It will not exaggerate the influence of man, which does not amount to one Krakatoa. Or if it does amount to more, for all we know, the massive burn-off of the Earth’s fossil fuels is all that stands between us and the next Ice Age.

Which is not, most assuredly not, my denial of the beauty in nature, which has answered to the spirit of man, and raised our consciousness to the divine, throughout our multi-millennial sojourn. Nor do I exclude the beauty in a holy death. We arrive on this planet pre-programmed for the apprehension of this Beauty, to a degree incomparable with any other animal. It is a portal to another world; we were meant to cultivate beauty in our garden.

But the Garden of Eden we cannot restore. It is not in our power to do so, nor to achieve the perfection of our end in this world. I say this often, for it is not enough heard.

The disparagement of nature is, however, a sin to which we are not presently tempted. It is the opposite, atheist or agnostic reverence for a Nature that is purely abstract, against which we must guard. This is not helped by the ideological advance of an increasingly thuggish environmentalism.

Nature is designed to take care of herself. We needn’t worry about offending her. She does not “bite back” as the environmentalists aver: that is what we used to know as the “pathetic fallacy.” She rains alike on the righteous and unrighteous, nor picks favourites when she is being a shrew. She goes on doing what she has always done, whether or not we love her, and whether or not we take stock of her characteristic warnings. The “problem” cannot be in nature, nor even in our technology, per se — there’s a good use for most of it. Rather it is in our sinful selves: in this case what living like pigs does, to us.

Stop doing that, and the world will become more beautiful again, all on its own. Insofar as Pope Francis makes and reiterates this point, he escapes reasonable criticism. (And attracts unreasonable criticism, instead.)

I may have more to mumble tomorrow, specifically about subsidiarity, mentioned in passing in the encyclical, but as other good things, only in passing. For I believe the encyclical exhibits the political propensity to go the wrong way: to demand “mega” solutions which can only fail; which are in their own nature counter-productive; which tend to prevent or discourage more promising “micro” approaches to the elimination of the waste, pollution, noise, and overall ugliness we trail behind us, everywhere we go these days.