The End of the Retail God
We all start out with a training-wheels god. It’s always a very much bigger version of mother and father (with all the bane and blessing that entails). It’s a god who looks after you but also looks in on you—so you’d better be good.
As we grow older we keep riding the training-wheels god. Our needs get bigger, and so do our entreaties. Find me a mate, find me a career, give me children, keep us safe. And life gets rougher; we get wounded. Now I need this god to be on my side, take away my pain, assure me that I am right, dispatch my enemies, promise me heaven.
In these days after Easter we always read the story of those two disciples on the road to Emmaeus. After the crucifixion their hopes have been dashed. Jesus did not turn out to be the kind of god they wished for. Not only could he not save them, he couldn’t even save himself. They were getting out of town—headed for Emmaeus, a village about seven miles from Jerusalem.
As they walk along, dispirited, the risen Christ comes along beside them but their eyes are veiled and they cannot recognize him. He asks why they are so sad, and they tell him. “Are you the only one who doesn’t know what’s happened the last few awful days in Jerusalem?” He says, “What things?” They recount the whole sad and violent tale. And they end with these words which ought to sound familiar to you and to me. “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” But we had hoped. I know that feeling. That he was the one. Isn’t that what we all want—the One who will be a stand-up decent god and make things come out right, for god sake? Isn’t that what god is supposed to do? Is this really asking too much?
William James, I think it was, spoke of a “wholesale God” and a “retail God.” The deity who fails us is always this “retail God,” the one who is hawked in churches and on television as a god you can really use. Money back guaranteed. We all start out with the retail version and we needn’t feel bad about that. It happens to every man and woman. But we need to be very careful when that god fails us and dies. That is a moment when many people decide there is no real God. In fact, the “retail God” has to go before the “wholesale God” can appear.
That’s the way it is for these two disciples on the road. In their desolation they are in fact at the point of great awakening. Now, when the real One appears, they are prepared to see and to know him. And they do. It takes a long walk, and the breaking of bread and the pouring out of wine at table. But their eyes are opened and their hearts burn.
If the “retail God” has failed you, take heart. And be very careful with your soul. This is a moment of great possibility. You might want to pray the words of the 14th century mystic, Meister Eckhart. “I pray God to free me from God.”