To Descartes, the universe was indefinite. Descartes basically advocated for an infinite universe with infinitely multiple worlds, but he reserved the word “infinite” for God, opting for “indefinite” as a near-synonym in describing the mundane world.
Still, there are some differences between an infinite cosmos and an indefinite one. In an infinite universe, you know that, by definition, the expanse of existence never ends. There are no borders. In an indefinite universe, you can’t see the end of the expanse. The borders might be there, or they might not be. But from your human position, there’s no way of finding out. You can’t define the extent of the universe.
To me, the extent of the church is indefinite. It’s probably not infinite. It more than likely has borders somewhere. But those borders aren’t ones that I’m in a position to define.
I visited Bolivia last month, and while I was there, the pope visited, too. I went to downtown Santa Cruz to hear him speak. It was hard to find a place to stand. There were so many people of every age and station of life gathered together that I couldn’t see the end of the crowd. As I looked around me at that multitude filling every possible space around the statue of Christ where the pope was leading mass, the huge extent of the church was borne in on me. And not solely the Roman Catholic church, but the catholic church of the Apostles’ Creed–the universal church of all who are God’s own.
In Rachel Held Evans’s Searching for Sunday, I also got a glimpse of the vast panorama of the church, spreading out around me like the crowd at the El Cristo statue. Evans delicately reveals the brokenness and grace of the church, its contradictory abrasive brashness and comforting community. Along the way, she points out the great diversity within the church, both among faith traditions and individuals.
Perhaps the church, like Descartes’ cosmos, is composed of indefinitely multiple worlds. Each denomination and sect and tradition and even each individual is its own world sustained in the grace-filled matrix of the universal church.
And from where I stand within the crowded church, that ecclesiastical universe has no definable boundaries. I don’t mean that no one can define themselves as separate from the church—obviously, they can, and that self-identification should be respected. But I do mean that I don’t get to draw that line for others.
The Western image of the universe used to be securely bounded by the impassible Ptolemaic spheres circling the Earth. The stars were pinned firmly to the outer sphere. Then the Sun shifted, the spheres cracked open, and space poured in. The stars became other worlds as large as ours–larger. The universe became indefinite.
I feel like I’ve slowly undergone a similar shift in thinking about the church. It’s not just one denomination—or one small set of people with the carefully-defined right answers. The church has become unenclosed, permeable, airy. It stretches beyond what I can see and define. And I’m glad.
[Image: A colorized version of the “Flammarion Engraving”| Wikimedia Commons | Public Domain]