Quotes & Sayings

We, and creation itself, actualize the possibilities of the God who sustains the world, towards becoming in the world in a fuller, more deeper way. - R.E. Slater

There is urgency in coming to see the world as a web of interrelated processes of which we are integral parts, so that all of our choices and actions have [consequential effects upon] the world around us. - Process Metaphysician Alfred North Whitehead

Kurt Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem says (i) all closed systems are unprovable within themselves and, that (ii) all open systems are rightly understood as incomplete. - R.E. Slater

The most true thing about you is what God has said to you in Christ, "You are My Beloved." - Tripp Fuller

The God among us is the God who refuses to be God without us, so great is God's Love. - Tripp Fuller

According to some Christian outlooks we were made for another world. Perhaps, rather, we were made for this world to recreate, reclaim, redeem, and renew unto God's future aspiration by the power of His Spirit. - R.E. Slater

Our eschatological ethos is to love. To stand with those who are oppressed. To stand against those who are oppressing. It is that simple. Love is our only calling and Christian Hope. - R.E. Slater

Secularization theory has been massively falsified. We don't live in an age of secularity. We live in an age of explosive, pervasive religiosity... an age of religious pluralism. - Peter L. Berger

Exploring the edge of life and faith in a post-everything world. - Todd Littleton

I don't need another reason to believe, your love is all around for me to see. – Anon

Thou art our need; and in giving us more of thyself thou givest us all. - Khalil Gibran, Prayer XXIII

Be careful what you pretend to be. You become what you pretend to be. - Kurt Vonnegut

Religious beliefs, far from being primary, are often shaped and adjusted by our social goals. - Jim Forest

We become who we are by what we believe and can justify. - R.E. Slater

People, even more than things, need to be restored, renewed, revived, reclaimed, and redeemed; never throw out anyone. – Anon

Certainly, God's love has made fools of us all. - R.E. Slater

An apocalyptic Christian faith doesn't wait for Jesus to come, but for Jesus to become in our midst. - R.E. Slater

Christian belief in God begins with the cross and resurrection of Jesus, not with rational apologetics. - Eberhard Jüngel, Jürgen Moltmann

Our knowledge of God is through the 'I-Thou' encounter, not in finding God at the end of a syllogism or argument. There is a grave danger in any Christian treatment of God as an object. The God of Jesus Christ and Scripture is irreducibly subject and never made as an object, a force, a power, or a principle that can be manipulated. - Emil Brunner

“Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh” means "I will be that who I have yet to become." - God (Ex 3.14) or, conversely, “I AM who I AM Becoming.”

Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. - Thomas Merton

The church is God's world-changing social experiment of bringing unlikes and differents to the Eucharist/Communion table to share life with one another as a new kind of family. When this happens, we show to the world what love, justice, peace, reconciliation, and life together is designed by God to be. The church is God's show-and-tell for the world to see how God wants us to live as a blended, global, polypluralistic family united with one will, by one Lord, and baptized by one Spirit. – Anon

The cross that is planted at the heart of the history of the world cannot be uprooted. - Jacques Ellul

The Unity in whose loving presence the universe unfolds is inside each person as a call to welcome the stranger, protect animals and the earth, respect the dignity of each person, think new thoughts, and help bring about ecological civilizations. - John Cobb & Farhan A. Shah

If you board the wrong train it is of no use running along the corridors of the train in the other direction. - Dietrich Bonhoeffer

God's justice is restorative rather than punitive; His discipline is merciful rather than punishing; His power is made perfect in weakness; and His grace is sufficient for all. – Anon

Our little [biblical] systems have their day; they have their day and cease to be. They are but broken lights of Thee, and Thou, O God art more than they. - Alfred Lord Tennyson

We can’t control God; God is uncontrollable. God can’t control us; God’s love is uncontrolling! - Thomas Jay Oord

Life in perspective but always in process... as we are relational beings in process to one another, so life events are in process in relation to each event... as God is to Self, is to world, is to us... like Father, like sons and daughters, like events... life in process yet always in perspective. - R.E. Slater

To promote societal transition to sustainable ways of living and a global society founded on a shared ethical framework which includes respect and care for the community of life, ecological integrity, universal human rights, respect for diversity, economic justice, democracy, and a culture of peace. - The Earth Charter Mission Statement

Christian humanism is the belief that human freedom, individual conscience, and unencumbered rational inquiry are compatible with the practice of Christianity or even intrinsic in its doctrine. It represents a philosophical union of Christian faith and classical humanist principles. - Scott Postma

It is never wise to have a self-appointed religious institution determine a nation's moral code. The opportunities for moral compromise and failure are high; the moral codes and creeds assuredly racist, discriminatory, or subjectively and religiously defined; and the pronouncement of inhumanitarian political objectives quite predictable. - R.E. Slater

God's love must both center and define the Christian faith and all religious or human faiths seeking human and ecological balance in worlds of subtraction, harm, tragedy, and evil. - R.E. Slater

In Whitehead’s process ontology, we can think of the experiential ground of reality as an eternal pulse whereby what is objectively public in one moment becomes subjectively prehended in the next, and whereby the subject that emerges from its feelings then perishes into public expression as an object (or “superject”) aiming for novelty. There is a rhythm of Being between object and subject, not an ontological division. This rhythm powers the creative growth of the universe from one occasion of experience to the next. This is the Whiteheadian mantra: “The many become one and are increased by one.” - Matthew Segall

Without Love there is no Truth. And True Truth is always Loving. There is no dichotomy between these terms but only seamless integration. This is the premier centering focus of a Processual Theology of Love. - R.E. Slater


Note: Generally I do not respond to commentary. I may read the comments but wish to reserve my time to write (or write from the comments I read). Instead, I'd like to see our community help one another and in the helping encourage and exhort each of us towards Christian love in Christ Jesus our Lord and Savior. - re slater

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

God and Time: What Is Time? And How Does Time Relate to God?

"Has God no attraction for what is new? Has he no capacity of the delightful
experiences of wonder and surprise and variety? We ought never to lose
sight of what God has explicitly revealed of himself when he declares
that we are made in his image and likeness."

- An 1882 quote by Lorenzo Dow McCabe, a Methodist who was one of the
first well-known advocates of Open theology to insist God experiences
time in a way analogous to how we experience time.

Today's article on "God and Time" should be considered a standard introduction written from both a theological, and philosophical, perspective as you would any premier to the subject. But not as a scientific one. It will introduce the novice reader to the several ideas of the church in consideration to those presented in Greek philosophy; and later, to the ideas of early, rudimentary, science as it was initially being laid out during the 17th century enlightenment period. As such, I would consider today's presentation as a series of "classic Christian arguments" on the subject itself.

Herein, does the author present a step-wise case for the topic at hand, but even as he did so I found myself asking more questions than were being answered. Moreover, as each conclusion was being made, even so were they understated and jumbled together in a tumbleweed of observations. Hence, my regard for this piece as an introduction to the topic on hand, and a beginning loci for discussion centered around the "classic" mindset of Christian theology. However, the newer, more postmodern discussions occurring in science, theology, and philosophy, are not addressed.

For additional help, I would suggest referring to the index at the bottom of this article under the subtitles of "The Origin of Time and Space," and "Discussions Ex Nihilo," along with reviewing the many articles found in the sidebars of this website, perhaps under the wider themes of "God, creation, sovereignty, sin, science, philosophy," and so forth. Thank you.

R.E. Slater
November 20, 2013

Today's entry was written by Ryan Mullins. Please note the views expressed here
are those of the author, not necessarily of The BioLogos Foundation. You can
read more about what we believe here.

*Of note, I have arranged Mullins article topically to help make it a bit more
comprehensible while interjecting a thought or two as I think it relates to other parts
of the theological discussions we have held here on this website. Where this is done
you will observe [brackets]. Thank you. - RE Slater

From Time Back to Eternity, Part I

What is time? What is eternity? Will humans always be asking these questions? Reflection on time and eternity has brought up all sorts of philosophical and theological conundrums. For instance, there is the ancient question, “What was God doing before he created the world?” There were two popular answers in the past. First, God was creating hell for people who ask such questions. This was usually seen as a joke response, though in some instances it was not. The second response was that God was creating time itself. As such, there is no "before creation". Whether or not this is a good response is something I will set aside for the moment.

To say that these topics are bedeviling would be an understatement. Time is such a fundamental feature of reality and human experience. We are constantly thinking about time in various ways and have multiple metaphors for capturing some of its more comprehensible aspects. We wear time on our wrists and use it to decorate our rooms. We experience the ebb and flow of time’s passage every conscious moment of our existence. We thank God for time when a horrible event ends, or when an anticipated event arrives. We mourn when great moments in our lives pass us by or cease to be. Time is a fundamental feature of our lives and we can’t help but think about it.

But perhaps we could think about time and eternity more clearly than we presently do. In this post I will introduce you to some of the types of questions that need to be asked in order to understand the nature of time and God’s eternity. In the process of discussing these questions, some possible answers will begin to emerge. The hope is that we can begin to think more clearly about time and eternity.

The Fundamental Questions

I’ll begin by sorting out some of the questions that people typically ask about time and the types of responses that are often given. Once a better understanding of these questions and responses are grasped, one can begin to understand the nature of eternity. What types of questions will help us achieve this understanding?

There are two types of fundamental questions about time. How one answers these questions will shape how s/he answers questions about the nature of eternity. The first question is the metaphysical question. The second is the ontological question:

I - The Metaphysics of Time

Metaphysics is the branch of philosophy that studies the basic fundamental features of reality. The metaphysical question is asking about the fundamental nature of time. What is time?

Time As Relational

Historically, there have been two broad answers. The first is sometimes called the “relational theory of time.” It can also be called the “reductive theory of time.” On this position, time is change. If there is a change, there is a time. If there is no change, there is no time. This is because change creates a before and after relationship.

For example: previously, you were not reading this blog post. Then you began to read this blog post. You changed from the state of not reading, to a state of reading. You have a before and an after in your life.

Imagine a somewhat different scenario. Imagine that the universe never existed. Perhaps after reading this blog post you wished that the universe never existed, but don’t think about it in that way. Instead, ask yourself a different question. If there were no universe, would time exist? Someone who holds to the relational theory would most likely say no. There needs to be something that exists that undergoes change in order to generate time.

Time As Non-Relational (or, Absolute)

Perhaps your gut is telling you something different. Maybe you think that time could exist even if the universe does not exist. If you feel this way, you are not alone, because there are thinkers who reject the relational theory of time. This brings us to the second position, which is called the “absolute theory of time.” It can also be called Platonism or substantivalism.

In this understanding of time, time can exist without change. This is because time is duration, or the possibility of change. When changes take place, time takes place, but time could exist without change.

During the 17th century, this view became quite popular. Along with its rise in popularity was a move away from the claim that God is timeless. Instead, various philosophers, theologians, and scientists came to equate time with God’s eternity. The idea was that time exists because God exists. Time necessarily flows from the divine nature. God has the perfect capacity to bring about any changes he so desires, and this capacity is all that is needed to generate time.

The claim from thinkers within this camp is that God exists regardless of whether or not he decides to create anything. Further, since time necessarily flows from the nature of God, time exists regardless of the contingent things that exist within it. So time would exist even if God did not create a universe.

Comparing Relational Time with Non-Relational Time

Of course, Christian theology claims that God has created this universe, and possibly others as well. To get a better grasp on the differences between the relational and absolute theory of time, focus your attention on our universe. Imagine that one day God paused the movements of the planets and everything else such that nothing within the universe continued to move until God unpaused it. Would time exist during this pause? The absolute theorist would say yes because time can exist without change. S/he might say that we could not measure the amount of time that passed during this pause, but s/he would still maintain that there was time during this pause. There was the moment when God paused the universe, then the pause, then the moment when God unpaused the universe. The relational theorist will most likely have none of this. If God pauses the universe such that there is no movement or change at all, she will say that there is no time occurring until God unpauses everything.

II - The Ontology of Time

To recap, these two possibilities—relational versus absolute time—respond to the first fundamental question on time: the metaphysical question. The second fundamental question is called the ontological question. Ontology is the branch of philosophy that studies existence [(or, composition)].

Time as Presentism

The ontological question on time asks about what moments of time exist. There are three basic positions one can take. The first is called presentism. This is often said to be the “common sense view,” and it has been the most widespread view throughout history. In presentism, only the present moment of time exists. The past no longer exists, and the future does not yet exist.

Time as Both Past and Present, but Not Future

The second position is called the “growing block view.” It holds that the past and present both exist. Time is like an ever-growing block where the leading edge is the present moment.

Time as Past, Present, and Future (or, Eternalism)

The third position is called “eternalism” and it says that the past, present, and future all exist.

In order to get a better grasp on the ontological question, consider another thought experiment. Imagine that you are sitting in your living room watching TV. All of a sudden a blue police box appears in your room, and a man in a sharp suit and wild hair bursts out of it calling himself “the Doctor.” With mad gestures and unnerving but exciting facial expressions, the Doctor tells you that he has a machine. If you come with him in this machine, he says that he can take you anywhere in space and to any “when” in time. All you have to do is say when and where, and he will take you there. Say you want to go back to the 17th century to hear Samuel Clarke and G.W. Leibniz debate the absolute and relational theory of time. Or maybe you want to go back and chat up Caroline, the Princess of Wales, whilst the debate is going on. Is this possible? That depends on several things, one of which is the ontology of time.

Comparing the Three Ontologies of Time

If presentism is true, the good Doctor may be able to take you anywhere, but he cannot take you to any when. In presentism, this is impossible since the past no longer exists. There is no moment in the past to go back to in order to flirt with the Princess of Wales.

However, if the growing block theory is true, the Doctor could take you there, since the past does exist in this theory. But perhaps you decide you want to see the future instead of chatting up some 17th Century Welsh princess. Say you want to know who will win the 2016 United States presidential election. If presentism or the growing block theory is true, the Doctor cannot take you to the future because the future does not exist in either theory.

But if eternalism is true, he can, since the past, present, and future all exist. (Of course, this is assuming that time travel is even a possibility. Many philosophers argue that time travel is not logically possible since it always involves a paradox of some sort, but that issue will have to wait for another day.)


Throughout this first post, I have alluded to the fact that how one answers these fundamental questions will shape how one understands God’s relation to time. In the next post, I’ll discuss how these questions of time come to bear on God’s eternal nature and his relationship with our temporal universe.

From Time Back to Eternity, Part II

Now that we have a somewhat better understanding of the different positions on the fundamental nature of time, we can ask about the fundamental nature of eternity [(sic, from time to eternity)]. Theologians and religious philosophers in the past have made a distinction between God’s eternity, and the eternal life that God has granted humans. Historically, most theologians have said that God’s eternity is timeless whereas the eternal life that is granted to humans is not. To say that humans will have eternal life is to say that they will enjoy blissful lives without end.

How Is God Eternal?

Beginning in the 17th century, theologians and philosophers began to reject the claim that God’s eternity is timeless. Instead, they said God’s eternity is temporal. Today, there is a serious debate over the nature of God’s eternity [sic, Process vs. Classical Thought - RE Slater)]. All of this brings up a very important set of questions. What is timeless eternity? What is temporal eternity? How one answers these questions will depend upon how she answered the above questions on time.

Time as a Timeless Eternity

When it comes to the task of articulating divine timelessness, theologians and philosophers have historically supported both presentism and the relational theory. To say that God is timeless is to say that God exists without beginning, without end, and without succession.

God lacks succession because he does not undergo any changes of any sort. Since time is change in the relational theory, and God does not change, God does not exist in time. Further, God exists in a timeless present that lacks a before and after.

Our present is fleeting in that it has a before, and after. Humans endure through time by existing in the present, but they have moments of their lives that no longer exist and other anticipated moments that do not yet exist.

These theologians would say that, unlike humans, God does not lose moments of his life, nor does he have moments that do not yet exist.

Time as Temporal Eternity

Other theologians and religious philosophers reject timeless eternity and instead hold to a temporal eternity. To say that God’s eternity is temporal is to say that God exists without beginning and without end. Yet they will say that God does have succession in his life.

1 - First Reason

One reason for rejecting timeless eternity is that a timeless God cannot create a temporal universe. A standard claim among believers of monotheistic religions is that God created the universe ex nihilo—out of nothing. The universe has not always existed because God was not always creating it. The universe is not co-eternal with God [because it was created by God at some point in time]. [The process theologian will additionally say that the God is continually creating (or, re-creating) the cosmos. - re slater].

So the picture we have of creation is one where God exists without the universe, and then God creates and exists with the universe. Creation marks a new moment in the life of God. God was not always the creator, but became the creator.

2 - Second Reason

A second reason for rejecting divine timelessness is from the doctrine of divine sustaining. Once God has created the universe, he sustains it in existence moment by moment. The universe would not exist at any given moment without God actively sustaining it in existence.

Given presentism, God would sustain one moment of time, and then cease to sustain it in existence as he sustains the next moment. Since the present is constantly moving forward, God would be continually sustaining new moments of time in existence and ceasing to sustain previous moments of time. As such, God’s life would involve succession and change as he sustains the universe in existence and providentially guides history to his desired goal.

Comparison of Time as Timeless or Temporal

Contemporary defenders of divine timelessness (view 1) have a reply to these objections. The objections assume presentism. However, as noted above, presentism is not the only position one could hold.

Today, most defenders of divine timelessness hold to eternalism whereby the past, present, and future all equally exist. In this picture of time, God is creating and sustaining all of time at once. There is a sense in which the universe is co-eternal with God because God never exists without the universe [(the idea of "pan-en-theism," which is part of process thought - re slater)]. So the problem of God beginning to create a universe does not arise because God never exists without the universe. God is eternally the creator.

Further, the contemporary defender will say that the problem of God sustaining the universe goes away too. The picture of God sustaining a moment of time in existence, and then ceasing to sustain it, does not arise on eternalism, for all moments of time are co-eternal with God.

What Time Is It? What Eternity Is It?

At this point, one might wonder which understanding of God and time is correct. Unfortunately, such an answer would make this blog post far too long. I can, however, note some of the issues that arise from each picture of God and time.

Comparison of View 1

First, consider the view that God is timeless and that eternalism is the right understanding of time [(sic, the classical position - re slater)]. All moments of time are co-eternal with God. One worry that this raises is with regard to the problem of evil and suffering. If all moments of time equally exist, and are co-eternal with God, then evil and suffering are co-eternal with God.

Think of yesterday morning when you got up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom. Recall how you stubbed your toe while stumbling through the dark corridors of your home. In that moment of pain you cursed God with a loud voice of anguish. As the pain subsided, you might have thought it rather silly to have been so upset. Perhaps you asked for forgiveness for your swearing, or maybe you offered up praise thanking God that the moment of pain had now passed.

On eternalism, that moment of time when you stubbed your toe exists. The you that exists at this moment is not experiencing that pain because you are experiencing the bliss of reading this blogpost. However, the you of yesterday morning is experiencing that pain because the you of yesterday exists just as much as the current you does, albeit at a different moment of time. The suffering you and the blissfully blog-reading you are both co-eternal with God.

For some Christians, it might be difficult to believe that God and suffering are co-eternal in this way. Instead, some Christians might ask how this view of God and time can be reconciled with the promise that one day God will remove all suffering from the universe (Revelation 21:4). If the moments of suffering never cease to exist because they are co-eternal with God, how can God truly rid the world of evil?

Comparison of View 2

Now consider the other view on which God is in time and presentism is the correct understanding of time. The temporal God is constantly changing as new moments of time come into existence. Consider again your unfortunate toe-stubbing incident from the night before. On presentism, that moment did not always exist, but it began to exist, then ceased to exist. God began to perceive that you were stubbing your toe. Then God began to perceive that you were cursing his name. Once you calmed down and asked for forgiveness, God began to forgive you.

This certainly fits with certain biblical themes about God’s responsiveness to human prayer, his interaction with history, and the claim that God was not always incarnate but became incarnate at one point in history for the sake of salvation.

However, some Christians might worry that this does not fit with the biblical theme of God’s [divine] immutability. Certain biblical passages seem to suggest that God is immutable or unchanging (e.g. Numbers 23:19; Malachi 3:6; James 1:17). As such, Christians might wonder how a temporal understanding of God can be reconciled with God’s immutability. How can a God who is constantly changing as he interacts with creatures truly be immutable?


Each position on God and time has its own answers to these worries, as well as other concerns that arise from the respective pictures of God and time. What those answers look like, and whether or not those answers are satisfying, will have to wait for another day. This is just the beginning of the discussion on God, time, and eternity. Hopefully, having a better sense of the fundamental questions will help us think more clearly about the God we worship, and help us come to appreciate his gift of eternal life.

continue to -

Index to past articles on "Particle Physics, Quantum Science, and the Universe"

* * * * * * *

God Is Not Outside of Time

by Tony Jones
January 23, 2014

One of the things I hear assumed by Christians all the time is that God is outside of time. It’s odd, I think, to make this assumption, because it’s not biblical, it’s Platonic. There’s a verse in 2 Peter that often gets cited — “But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day.” — but that is a reflection on God’s experience of time, not God’s independence from time.

As human beings, we are hedged in on all sides by time, completely circumscribed by it. Our impending deaths remind us daily of this reality. Try as we might, we simply cannot conceive of being free from time.

That’s not to say that time isn’t fluid. In the 20th century, we became aware that time can be slightly bent, and in the 21st century, we’re starting to hear that maybe time can take place more complexly than we’ve previously known.

Nevertheless, time is a condition of our existence, and it’s inescapable.

In the book I’m currently writing, the questions I’m trying to answer have to do with where was God on Good Friday? What is God’s relationship to the cross? And what is God’s culpability in the death of Jesus? God’s relationship to time is implicated in all of these questions. And I’m coming to rest with the idea that God is voluntarily bound to time. That part of God’s longstanding story of humility and self-limitation is that God abdicated timelessness in order to have an authentic relationship with timebound beings. Because if God were outside of time, relationship [as we know and experience it] with those of us inside of time would be impossible.

The Yanomami's View of the "White World"

Davi Kopenawa hopes to overturn prejudices towards his people
(Image: Vincent Rosenblatt/Camera Press)

The shaman's-eye view: A Yanomami verdict on us

by Daniel L. Everett
November 18, 2013

In The Falling Sky: Words of a Yanomami shaman, Davi Kopenawa looks from the other side of the anthropological lens – and the result is a literary treasure

STORIES are quilts. They are patches of brightness sewn together by narratives. And as with a quilt, each patch is chosen, not random. No two people will make the same quilt or tell the same story, even if they choose the same material.

So it is with The Falling Sky: Words of a Yanomami shaman, one of the first and best autobiographical narratives by an indigenous lowland Amazonian. It is the result of a collaboration between French anthropologist Bruce Albert, who worked among the Yanomami for 38 years, and Davi Kopenawa, a shaman who became spokesman for all Amazonians through his work with indigenous-rights organisation Survival International. Albert wrote the introduction and the conclusion; the rest is Kopenawa, translated.

Each offers his perspective, but the central story is Kopenawa's, his personal history, the philosophy and spirituality of the Yanomami, and his view of the outsiders who have both attacked and celebrated his people, in Brazil, the US and Europe: the "white people".

One interpretation of the book is that it is little more than 600-plus pages praising superstition, interspersed with lengthy, mistaken condemnation of modern societies. But this misses the main point: all descriptions of other peoples will be affected by how the writer's perspective was formed within their own society, simultaneously full of truth and rife with misunderstanding, wrong focus, or attempts – conscious or unconscious – to impose the author's beliefs.

Kopenawa labels whites as "fierce people" with deliberate irony, playing on the label applied to the Yanomami by some anthropologists, the best known of whom is Napoleon Chagnon. His book about the Yanomami, The Fierce People, is perhaps the bestselling anthropological book of all time. His work has been attacked by Survival International for promoting the idea that the Yanomami are more violent than whites, a view that has informed the work of other academics.

Kopenawa makes it clear that the Yanomami revenge fights are nothing compared with whites' mastery of destruction, which dwarfs anything the world has seen. So he rejects the label "war" as a description of his people's violence, saying that they fight over "funerary urns" – the desire to avenge loved ones killed by the sorcery and violence of others.

You may not like the way he portrays whites because, surely, we are not like that? Yet Kopenawa bases his interpretation on personal experience, training and observations – no different from any anthropologist. And the story that emerges of our people is unpleasant. Even when he gets us wrong, The Falling Skyteaches us that it hurts to read partial truths about one's society from the pen of a largely unsympathetic observer. Just as it hurts the Yanomami. Anthropologists and travel writers, take note.

Yet ironically, the fame of the Yanomami and the interest this book is generating are partly due to anthropologists like Chagnon and their views. Kopenawa condemns the whites who "...continue to lie about us by saying: 'The Yanomami are fierce. All they think about is warring and stealing women. They are dangerous!' Such words are our enemies and we detest them."

The effect whites had on him as a child is more complex, though. "If the white people hadn't appeared... I would probably also have become a warrior and would have arrowed other Yanomami in anger when I wanted revenge. I have thought to do it. I always contained my evil thoughts... and stayed quiet by thinking of the white people. I would tell myself: 'If I arrow one of us, those who covet our forest will say I am evil and devoid of wisdom... they are the ones who kill us with their diseases and shotguns. And it is against them... I must direct my anger today!"

Fierceness is indeed a trait of the Yanomami, one that comes from the ancestor spirit Arowë, Kopenawa tells us. But so too are gentleness, hard work, love of family, deep philosophical thought, fun, and more. Your quilt will look different depending on which patch – the one for fierceness, understanding of nature, or love of family – you sew in the centre. None of the quilts is false: each shows the variety of human perceptions and why no quilt, story or book should be taken as "the truth". The true contribution of this book is to show us the richness of the Yanomami spirit and culture through the eyes of a respected leader of the community.

The author's name, too, speaks volumes. "Davi" is the name the whites gave him. Kopenawa is his Yanomami name, referring to the vicious kopena wasps found in the area, while the "omamo" part of Yanomamo – as it is sometimes transliterated – means "sons of God". The book's title, The Falling Sky, is also significant. It refers both to the periodic destruction of the world in Yanomami lore, and to the threat of final destruction if the "white man" does not adopt more of the Yanomami values.

The book is a mix of autobiography, history, personal philosophy, and cultural criticism of whites for their destruction of the world, worship of the material, and lack of spirituality and vitality. It extols the virtues of Yanomami life and culture and their deity, Omama, placing him at the foundation not only of their culture but of white culture, too. Tellingly, Kopenawa's first impression of Stonehenge, which served a society that some would label truly fierce, was that it was most likely built by and dwelt in by Omama.

Kopenawa's life began when he "fell on the ground from the vagina of a Yanomami woman". Pride in the lack of euphemism and in his origins is evident in this phrase. He has no desire to pretend he is like a white man, though he enjoys being among them. And the book is not only finely detailed and full of challenging philosophical points, it also contains much humour. Take Kopenawa's reaction on seeing the large populations of Brazilian cities: "White people must never stop copulating."

More darkly, he reminds us what it is like to be on "the other side" – to be missionised, anthropologised, and regulated by government. These are not pleasant experiences. His story is particularly pointed when he describes the ham-fistedness of Brazilian state employees. He singles out the officious attitudes of the FUNAI, the body that makes and carries out policy relating to indigenous peoples.

The book is also in part the story of anthropologist Bruce Albert. His narrative is clear and compelling as the story of an anthropologist working among a particular people in the Amazon. But the presence of a second narrative dilutes Kopenawa's story, and overall the book would have been stronger without it – though it would, no doubt, make an excellent stand-alone book.

Ultimately, it is Kopenawa's voice that tells us who he is, who his people are, and who we are to them. It is complex and nuanced; I'd go so far as to callThe Falling Skya literary treasure: invaluable as academic reading, but also a must for anyone who wants to understand more of the diverse beauty and wonder of existence.

This article appeared in print under the headline "Those fierce white people"

Daniel L. Everett is dean of arts and sciences at Bentley University, Massachusetts. His latest book is Language: The cultural tool (Profile). He has translated for Davi Kopenawa, and lived with the Amazonian Pirahã people and studied their language