Are You Experienced?

Tangible experiences have their place, but Our Lord also reminds us, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” (John 20:29)

Mattia Preti (1613-1699), “Saint Thomas”
Mattia Preti (1613-1699), “Saint Thomas” (photo: Public Domain)

When Whakaari/White Island erupted Dec. 9, leaving 19 dead, two missing, and 26 seriously injured, it showed the dangers of the “experience economy” and so-called “adventure tourism.” The firsthand experience of a volcanic eruption proved injurious, if not fatal.

The term “experience economy” was coined at the relatively early date of 1998 in the Harvard Business Review by B. Joseph Pine II and James H. Gilmore. They said, “While prior economic offerings — commodities, goods, services — are external to the buyer, experiences are inherently personal, existing only in the mind of the individual who has been engaged on an emotional, physical, intellectual, or even spiritual level.” Pine and Gilmore classified the four realms of experience: entertainment, educational, escapist and aesthetic. The first two are treated as “passive” while the latter two are deemed “active.” Finally, they discussed the importance of “customer participation.” According to Pine and Gilmore, the richest experiences encompass all four realms, using the examples of Las Vegas casinos and Disney World. “Customer participation” actively engages people in the experience itself.

The world’s largest Starbucks in Chicago touts its third-floor “experience bar.” San Francisco and Las Vegas tout “dessert experiences” to tourists. Since 2016, Airbnb has offered “Experiences.” Currently, their “Experiences” include: a pizza class in Rome, Angkor Wat sunrise, a “Sound Journey” in a Sedona “Private Vortex,” meditation with a shaman in Indonesia, and a Drag Queens Cooking Class and Dinner Party in Lisbon. On JetBlue, the “Mint Experience” includes a tasting menu and a “signature drink.” It is not simply making pizza, cooking dinner, but a unique subjective experience that is offered.

Most notably, a 2014 Eventbrite survey showed that 78% of millennials prefer spending money on desirable experiences rather than objects. Furthermore, 69% of millennials see these experiences as shaping their identities and a sense of community.

However, this community comes at a price, with 69% of them also saying they have FOMO (Fear of Missing Out). FOMO is a form of social anxiety, often connected with addiction to social media like Snapchat, Facebook, and Twitter. It is the reason why people camp out to see the latest “Star Wars” movie, wait for hours for French pastries at trendy restaurants, and crowd an Icelandic valley featured in a Justin Bieber music video. It becomes an unhealthy form of competition, of constantly comparing one’s self to others. FOMO can also lead to depression.

A 2018 Credit Karma survey showed that 48% of millennials had gone into debt in order to keep up with their friends. Hoarding “desirable experiences” is akin to accumulation of treasure for its own sake.

In the parable of the rich fool (Luke 12:13-21), Jesus warned about storing up earthly rather than heavenly treasure. “Desirable experiences” can become a form of wealth, despite the fact they are subjective events rather than tangible riches. It becomes more about getting Instagram “Likes” than pleasing God.

Experiences are not material goods, but they can still be a form of “riches” that detracts from God. It can lead to self-centeredness, with a “compare and despair” mentality. Some experiences — like making pizza — are neither morally good nor bad. But others can be immoral, like the occult “Tea and Tarot in Milwaukee” or the Drag Queens Cooking Class in Lisbon (which even allows guests to bring young children).

When the culture offers “experiences” as the path to happiness, the Catholic Church offers a transcendent experience and true, lasting happiness. Experiences enrich people’s lives but they are not the greatest good. The highest good is the Beatific Vision and sainthood, which goes beyond our limited human experience.

Nativity scenes, Las Posadas, Corpus Christi processions and May crownings can be transcendent experiences. They bring the narratives of Our Lord and Our Lady into the present day. When St. Francis of Assisi popularized the Nativity scene, it was about making the story of Jesus’ birth immersive. However, it was also a form of evangelization. It was more than “customer participation” at the first Nativity scene with the actors and live animals — its objective was to move the heart.

St. Francis also used the Nativity scene to teach more intellectual aspects of the faith such as the Incarnation, the Virgin Birth, and virtues such as simplicity. Contemplation of the Holy Family, surrounded by shepherds and the wise men, drew the mind upward.

When Pine and Gilmore discussed the “experience economy” in 1998, they suggest to “mix in memorabilia,” using the example of a Rolling Stones concertgoer buying an expensive T-shirt to remember the event.

Sacramentals are a way to participate in the life of the Church. Rosaries, holy cards, statuary, scapulars and crucifixes bring the faith into daily life.

In Scripture, both experience and faith are important. St. Paul experienced blindness when he was converted (Acts 9:3-19). His inability to see demonstrated his moral blindness. While his conversion and healing were experiential, he also reasoned with the Athenians (Acts 17:22-31). St. Paul’s intellect enabled him to defend the faith in person and in his epistles. His belief in Jesus was more than a feeling.

St. Thomas desired experience, saying he could not believe the Resurrection unless he personally felt Jesus’ wounds (John 20:24-25). Jesus showed mercy to St. Thomas, also saying (John 20:29), “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”

St. Peter wanted to turn the Transfiguration into an experience (Luke 9:33), with booths for Our Lord, Elijah and Moses, but all the Father says is to listen to his Son (Luke 9:35).

Experience is important to faith, but its value is not absolute. This is seen in the story of Elijah himself. On the holy mountain, the prophet Elijah experiences a strong wind, a catastrophic earthquake, and a powerful fire, but it is in the “still small voice” he truly encounters God (1 Kings 19:11-13).

The prophet learns he should seek God through quiet listening. It is about opening the intellect to the divine. His mind needs to be attuned with God. Elijah’s quiet obedience to God’s will leads to his majestic journey on a chariot of fire (2 Kings 2:11).

St. Paul shows the intellectual side of the faith in his captivity epistles: Colossians, Ephesians, Philippians and Philemon. Though he no longer had adventurous “experiences” to spread the Gospel like the shipwreck in Malta (Acts 27:39-44, 28:1-2) and being mistaken for Hermes (Acts 14:12-18), he discussed the Incarnation, the role of family, and the issue of slavery. St. Paul wrote powerfully in his captivity epistles, despite his lack of an “audience” or an exciting venue like Athens’ Areopagus. In Athens, St. Paul spoke timeless truths to philosophers who “spent their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new” (Acts 17:21).

The Catholic faith is more than a fleeting, desirable experience. It is rooted in Jesus, who is “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). Our Lord is the abundant life.

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