“Standing in the Light” by Sharman Apt Russell is a mediocre, book-length personal essay. The book is a history of pantheism told through a personal lens.
Using the braided structure popularized by creative nonfiction and personal essayists, Russell weaves back and forth between the story of her own life as a naturalistic, pantheist Quaker, and the story of pantheism and its key thinkers through the ages.
Pantheism, here defined as: “Everything is connected and the web is holy.”
Not a bad summation, I don’t think. I’ll remember that sentence, written by Marcus Aurelius almost 2,000 years ago, long after I’ve forgotten the rest of the book. Which will be soon, as Russell’s prose was forgettable. People won’t be quoting “Standing in the Light” two millennia down the line.
Russell fails to adequately add weight to her personal narratives, and long sections spent on tedious activities like bird-banding fail to evoke the intended interconnectedness of experience, and instead simply feel disconnected. Russell simply does not command the evocative language and imagery to make these nature sections sing. Instead of enjoying the respite from dry history, I spent every personal section wondering how long until the book got back to the subject at hand— pantheism.
Ironically, the philosophy of pantheism would tell you that Russell’s experience is just as worthwhile as that of any famous thinker. This, I suspect, was what she aimed to convey by including such lengthy personal diversions. Ultimately though, I would have preferred a book with a pure focus on the thought and history of pantheism.
Pantheism is an interesting concept. It’s essentially nondenominational “spirituality,” a belief that many people will espouse today, without ever really defining its boundaries. Perhaps that fuzziness is why pantheism seems so appealing: it allows for the comfort of a greater force, without the sharp angles and uncomfortable dogma of the more defined belief systems.
Pantheism could appeal to those who don’t want to make a definitive choice.
We see this throughout “Standing in the Light,” as Russell continually waffles over her membership in her local Quaker Circle of Friends (yes, Quaker assemblies really are called that), as well as her connection and duty to nature.
Ultimately, this book fails to scratch the spiritual itch which is the reason I read things like this or The Four Agreements. “Standing in the Light” is more a meandering memoir than it is a piece of thought-provoking philosophy.
And that’s OK. In a way, a slow memoir without much punch feels right for pantheism. Pantheism is a quiet, accepting philosophy. It’s comforting, not challenging.
It’s just not what I’m looking for at this moment in my life.