Naturalist and the Christ, The

Naturalist and the Christ, The

A Lent Course Based on the Film Creation

God and evolution, God and suffering - a search for Darwins God.


This is a Lent course for twenty-first century Christians and I commend it warmly. Bishop of Ely

This five-part Lent course draws on the life, work and religious struggles of Charles Darwin as depicted in the 2009 film Creation, a film based on the book Annies Box by Darwins great-great-grandson Randal Keynes.

This compelling and accessible Lent course looks at questions of great importance to all Christians. Can God and evolution co-exist? Why did the Victorian Church find it so hard to accept Darwins theory? Why do some Christians today find it difficult? What implications does evolution have for the Church and her doctrine? What is the authority or reliability of scripture? To what extent were Darwin s own Christian beliefs shaped by the theology of his day, and how did this lead to his loss of faith after the death of his daughter Annie in 1851? Where is God in all the suffering of his creation?


This innovative and interactive Lent course, which is written for Christians of all denominations and could easily be undertaken by an ecumenical group comprising different traditions, addresses these questions with clarity and depth of understanding in a proven and highly successful format.


The latest church leader to find the relevance of Studdert Kennedy is the Reverend Timothy Heaton in a book published in 2011 called "The Naturalist and the Christ". It addresses two main questions: is the theory of evolution consistent with Christian teaching and - once more - why does a good God tolerate suffering? Heaton is not a Creationist and sees no conflict between evolution spread over millions of years and Christianity - nor, for that matter, did Darwin. More puzzling for Heaton is the fact that evolution entailed much suffering... Studdert Kennedy, as Heaton explains, went further than Darwin because he experienced at first hand the cruelty of war. How does this level with the almighty God of love? Heaton identifies two main responses of Studdert Kennedy. The first, to quote Heaton, is that "The power of God will not always be displayed in lifting us out of the sufferings of the world, but in enabling us to live courageously in the world as it is." The second is that the almightiness and love of God is revealed in his suffering with humankind. God in Christ lived as a common human being and suffered the pain of rejection and extreme cruelty when he was crucified. More, Studdert Kennedy insisted that God still feels pain when his creatures do so. Heaton sums up his triumphant conclusion, "To be afflicted by evil is not to be afflicted by God but to be appointed in Christ to join God's fight to conquer evil wherever it is to be found." (pp 181-182, abridged) ~ Bob Holman, "Woodbine Willie: An Unsung Hero of World War One", Lion Hudson, 2013

This excellent book explores very thoughtfully the question of whether God and evolution can co-exist. In his introduction, Tim Heaton discusses Darwin's faith and loss of faith when his much loved daughter Annie died, and the way in which Victorian Christianity failed him. But the book also manages to encompass a wide sweep of theological contemplation: it describes a new orthodoxy of Christian thought that has developed in response to the major sufferings of the 20th century - the First World War and the Holocaust to name but two. The book also provides a fascinating survey, in its opening chapter, of the life and work of Charles Darwin. The text is written in a very accessible style, that draws you into committing to the, at times, complex subject matter. Where the going gets tough we, the readers, are encouraged to persist, and the author does successfully untangle the difficult and elucidate the obscure. This is a very intelligent and rewarding course that encourages one to explore difficult areas of theology. It teaches about the life and work of Darwin and convinces one to commit to serious thought about some of the most difficult areas of Christian theology; how far we refract our faith through the lens of contemporary thought and ideas, and how we address the issues of suffering and evil. As the Chancellor of Salisbury Cathedral, The Revd Canon Edward Probert very aptly says, "This is an impressive piece of work. I am struck throughout by the pleasantness of Heaton's style - he is entirely readable and never lets that slip." ~ Catriona Wickson, The Harrovian

Despite being accompanied by lengthy recommendations from virtually every senior cleric who has staffed the Salisbury diocese since the building of Stonehenge, The Naturalist and the Christ would be a remarkable piece of work by any priest, let alone a eecently ordained one. Drawing on the film Creation, Tim Heaton explores Darwin’s life, his theory of evolution, and how his Victorian faith simply failed to address his grief at the death of his daughter.

Juxtaposing this with the temptations of Jesus as set out in St Luke’s Gospel, Heaton comes up with some extremely helpful
pointers to synthesise faith, creation, evolution, and the problem of
suffering. Along the way we are introduced, with the lightest of  touches, to Studdert Kennedy, Martin Luther, Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Elie Wiesel, and Jürgen Moltmann, who give eloquent support to the kenotic Christology and Theodicy that Heaton brilliantly expounds. This is a rollercoaster of a course, which
will both stretch and thrill every participant.

~ David Wilbourne, Church Times

This is a fantastic Lent resource for those who want to be challenged and look deeper into the life of Darwin, a man of transitioning faith, great intellect and heartbreaking loss, because that is what this Lent course introduces us to, but also a course that addresses our current society views and values too.

As a Lent course for a questioning generation this is fantastic material. Well written, deeply challenging but not hard to read at all, covering many subjects that are topical, interesting and relevant with a clear insight but also a deep spirituality flowing throughout it. Certainly this is the Lent course I will want to be doing this year and will likely be thinking of it long after Lent has finished.


~ Melanie Carroll, The Goodbookstall

Losing faith may seem an unusual starting point for a Lent course, but thats just where this intriguing course begins. The Naturalist and the Christ is based on the 2009 film Creation, which follows the story of Charles Darwin as he prepares to publish On the Origin of Species and as he struggles, not only with the devastating impact his theories may have both on wider society and his devout wife, Emma, but also with the personal tragedy of the death of his "favourite" daughter, Annie.

Author Tim Heaton, a priest in Salisbury Diocese, following the popular and successful format of such courses as Christ and the Chocolaterie, uses extracts from the film to prompt a wide range of questions for group exploration. On the most basic level, the course seeks to ask the question, Is there some common ground between God and evolution? and to highlight the weaknesses of modern creationist theologies. The really engaging material, though, starts from Darwins loss of faith, caused (it is contended) by a deficient theology, based on a naive belief in a beneficent Creator of a happy world of delighted existence, a world that comes crashing down when confronted by the reality of evil and suffering.

This is the heart of the matter: what kind of God do we believe in, what kind of world has He made, and where does Christ fit into it? The book culminates in a moving exposition of a Theology of a Suffering God, based on the writings of G A Studdert Kennedy, which will prove challenging to those of a more triumphalist spirituality, and a little one-eyed to those of us who dont want to lose sight utterly of the transcendent God.

The course is designed specifically to be studied during Lent - the Biblical material is taken from the temptations of Christ in Luke - and encouragement is given to integrate it into Lent and Holy Week observance.

It is not easy, or satisfactory, to review a course before using it as such but, having read the book and viewed the film, I cant wait to give it a go. The questions it addresses are utterly contemporary and approached in an engaging and accessible manner. Ill be amazed if they dont lead Lent groups into some stimulating discussion. And finally... how could I not commend it? It comes with the full backing of the Bishop of Truro, no less.

~ Canon Bill Stuart-White, 'The Coracle', the magazine of the Diocese of Truro

This five session Lent course comes with a small army of commendations and all are fully justified. That said I wouldnt limit its use to Lent or the parish - it could be used at other times and RE teachers exploring Christian responses to suffering/evolution will find much material here. Its a stimulating and enjoyable read.

The course revolves around the film Creation (2009) which explores Darwins response to the death of his 10 year old daughter Annie against the backdrop of the publication of his lifes work on the origin of species. Within the framework of a Lenten meditation on Jesus temptations, Tim Heatons course explores why Darwins experiences inevitably brought him into conflict with the dominant theology of his day, how contemporary Christians may respond to the theory of evolution, and how an answer to the crisis of faith that Darwin experienced may be found in the Theology of a Suffering God. Tim draws upon a huge range of sources (biblical, scientific, theological) and each is skillfully introduced, explained and utilised. Anyone confused about the nuances between creationists, young-earth creationists and advocates of intelligent design will be edified in just under three pages!

Personally, I would have liked a little more guidance in the introduction on how groups could be encouraged to consider the film clips as art forms in their own right (as well as springboards to wider discussions). Each one is after all a feast of image and sound with its own theological depth. This is a minor concern however that can be addressed by the course leader and one that shouldnt prevent anyone from using this comprehensive and thoroughly excellent resource.

~ Karenza Passmore, 'Newslink', the newspaper of the Diocese of Durham

Book of the month

This is a much meatier tome than most aiming to support group study in Lent. Heatons starting point is the 2009 film Creation, a biographical portrait of Charles Darwin which focuses on the personal and theological travails which arose from his developing theory of natural selection, and the death of a deeply loved daughter.

Heaton proposes a familiar group approach, five ninety-minute sessions with a consistent and detailed structure, including discussion, silence, readings and prayers, as well as clips from the film. The sequence of sessions follows the Lucan narrative of Christs temptations.

Heaton stresses that participation in this course should above all be fun, and that the study and reflection elements go along with the social. He has a pleasant, readable style, but doesnt patronise his reader. The range of sometimes challenging subjects addressed should not be undertaken by those hoping simply for a biscuit and a chat: 19th century English thought and religion; competing theories of geology and evolution; science and fundamentalist creationism; doctrines of the Fall, original sin, and salvation; 20th century theologies of the suffering God. Yet this isnt all dry theorising, because it begins with a human narrative in film, and along the way picks up such other interesting individuals as Woodbine Willie.

Well led, and with a motivated group of participants, this course can be an extremely fruitful way into areas which most Christians barely grasp, opening up the development of thought in science and theology, the interaction (or failure to interact) of these fields, and how the personal and corporate experience of suffering can be well, or badly, integrated with faith.

For those who get fired up by the film and this course, Heaton provides tools to take things further: he includes a biography of Darwin, and rounds the book off with an extensive bibliography. The book is also suitable for individual study.

~ Canon Edward Probert, 'The Sarum Link', the newspaper of the Diocese of Salisbury

Big themes for Lent study

The Naturalist and the Christ engages with contemporary issues and is designed specifically for Lent study groups; especially those who might not normally be inclined to a typical devotional Lenten study.

The course, in five sessions, covers Big Themes: science, modern history, politics and serious theology.

In particular, it tackles the issue of theodicy - the belief, in the face of suffering and evil, in a God who loves us. And there are contributions by important figures who helped shape the Christian response to the horrors of war, to build a coherent 20th century theology of the Cross.

Darwins own writings are set in the context of the whole of his life and thought, as well as his formative response to the death of his daughter, Annie, at the age of ten.

Darwins theological training and the religious landscape of the 19th century left him unprepared to integrate his own personal response to tragedy with the faith he had professed, and with his own scientific discoveries - a dilemma faced in wider society after the carnage of the First World War.

If that sounds too heavy and over-facing, the course also offers a reassuringly familiar Lenten journey, grounding each weekly session in Scripture, using Lukes account of Jesus encounter with Satan in the wilderness.

Each session focuses on two clips from the 2009 film (not included) Creation and leaves space for informed reflection and prayer. Meditations integrate Scripture, Darwins own writings and insights from other writers with silence and more formal prayer. 

~ George Lane, 'Crux', the magazine of the Diocese of Manchester

An intriguing course for Lent which interweaves scripture and science, film and Christian thought, all in the context of discussion. It is carefully researched, elegantly written and well-presented.

~ The Rt Revd Dr Graham Kings, Bishop of Sherborne

I am very grateful to Tim for all the hard work and creativity he has put in to producing this course. Having read the course material myself I know that those groups who study it will be in for an exciting and challenging time. The issue of the environment and creation is clearly a very important one and I am sure that this course will open up many areas that will be fruitful and productive. I am convinced that we, as Christians, need to go back again to read our Bibles carefully and thoughtfully and I know that this course will encourage others to do this.

~ The Rt Revd Tim Thornton, Bishop of Truro

I commend this Lent Course to parishes and groups who would like to deepen their understanding of one of those areas of Christian life where there remains sometimes irreconcilable differences in belief. It reminds us of the shock of Darwin's theory in his time, and gives us a feel for how Christians developed analytical tools to think afresh about what we believe. It is a thorough and thought-provoking course and a good addition to resources for a thoughtful Lent.

~ The Venerable Stephen Waine, Archdeacon of Dorset

I am struck by the substantial nature of this course. It is not lightweight - it tackles many profound issues and takes things seriously, using a lot of real theological material and references. No subject is glossed, no one is misrepresented, neither are important issues shirked. It's great to see a Lent study course which isn't patronizing or bland - this is genuinely an impressive piece of work. I am also struck throughout by the pleasantness of Heaton's style - he is entirely readable and never lets that slip.

~ The Revd Canon Edward Probert, Chancellor of Salisbury Cathedral

What does a suffering God have to do with Darwinian theory? In this five-session course, Tim Heaton brings the crisis of faith brought about by the death of Darwin's 10-year old daughter and the arguments subsequently developed in The Origin of Species, movingly captured in the film Creation, into dialogue with the traditional Lenten meditation on Jesus's temptation in the wilderness. The perspective is enriched by engaging with the writings of contemporary theologians and scientists. This is a course for twenty-first century Christians and I commend it warmly. 

~ The Rt Revd Stephen Conway, Bishop of Ely

Tim Heaton
Tim Heaton The Reverend Tim Heaton is in parish ministry in the Diocese of Salisbury. He was ordained as a Deacon in 2008 and Priest in 2010, at the ag...
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