The whole mass and momentum of living is in feeling.
Blood, vomit, piss: liquid flows (viscous or easy) through the winding conversation of Will Arbery’s Heroes of the Fourth Turning. With its every appearance, this liquid indicates the stubbornness of flesh, of what cannot be solidified by the tidy concepts these heroes have constructed to make sense of their place in the nation’s history—or even their place in their own small and rather unheroic lives.
The same intransigence can be felt in the blood on the porch the hero Justin cannot scrub away, in the unearthly screech the priest’s holy water fails to banish, and in the visceral torment regularly visited upon Emily’s Lyme-diseased body. These pages are haunted, to be sure, but we cannot name the ghost until we locate the specter’s site of entry, the crack in American Catholicism’s house, as Arbery sees it. And that fissure is found in the space dividing the mind and its reasons from feeling and its flesh.
SPOILER WARNING! Spoilers ahead.
A Big Conversation
The question to be explored in Heroes is indicated early in the play, in an exchange between the characters Kevin and Teresa. After reuniting with his friend from his undergraduate days, Kevin makes an attempt to connect with Teresa on a personal level. This, significantly, introduces the first major theoretical discussion of the play, on the theological idea of the “scandal of particularity.” Here is the set-up:
Kevin. Okay got it. Well let me tell you about my soul.
Teresa. No thank you.
Kevin. I’ve been so curious and terrified about—.
Teresa. No, I said no. I’m just not in the mood. It’s too overwhelming. Sorry.
Kevin. Oh. Um, okay.
(He almost gets sad, but fights it off).
What we need to do is have a big conversation...!
What we need to do is have a big conversation...!
Like we used to do (17).
The shift from affect to intellect is the leitmotif of Heroes. In other words, the issue at play on this stage is not ideas, political or theological. For all its Dostoyevskian flavor, Heroes of the Fourth Turning never reaches that same polyphony. True, each character’s unique way of embracing of the “Catholic idea” is an implicit rebuke against and interrogation of the way the others embody the ideal. But although ideas meet and contest in these pages, the characters who espouse them are never fully identified with their ideological positioning. That is because the idea is not the point; to show us persons struggling—and ultimately failing—to successfully assimilate the idea is.
Integral to this failure of assimilation is the notion, repeated in various guises throughout the play, that language and thought can never become adequate to the reality of flesh and feeling. We see this idea at play in the dispute between “reason” and “empathy,” characterized by Teresa and Emily’s argument concerning the moral status of those who work for Planned Parenthood. It is not for nothing that the play is book-ended by Justin and Emily’s call-and-response sing-song, “Doopey-doo,” a non-conceptual affirmation of relationship and love before and beyond the ideological system the characters in the play imagine will cement their relationships. In the vision of the playwright, words, ideas, constructs, and ideologies must fail in the face of life, and the play’s heroes suffer to the degree that they refuse this revelation.
But refuse it they must. Why? Because the stakes are life and death. They are living through the Crisis, after all, the eponymous “fourth turning” of history in which all good people are called to war against the barbarians threatening (Western) civilization itself. The barbarians are at the gates; or, as Teresa fears, the barbarians have already entered in, “infecting” her with a noxious ideology capable of eroding her very moral being. The dominant conceptual System for these heroes, the foundational Dichotomy, is an eschatological battle between the “Church” and the “(Secular) World,” with no shared humanity bridging the divide between these two. In such an apocalypse, there can be no room for compromise. It is this stark dualism, lived by nearly everyone on stage (although in distinct modalities), that makes it imperative for these same characters to ignore the ruptures and lacunae in the way their belief system is concretely not working for their psychic well-being. Like the moral masochist these heroes cannot soften their engagement with and alter their appropriation of the System they have been taught; to do so would mean psychic relief, and that is exactly what the World deceptively promises with its moral dissipation. Thus, our heroes are trapped, expressing greater cruelty towards each other, their “friends,” the more effort they must exert to continue to exist within the System.
The four “heroes” of the play—Justin, Teresa, Kevin, and Emily—exist on a continuum representing how thoroughly they have assimilated the System. Justin and Teresa are the truest believers, and so their failure to assimilate is not as immediately apparent as Kevin’s and Emily’s. Still, a careful reading of the play promises to show the dangers of a certain kind of Catholic ethos that substitutes theological constructs for human beings, and so misses how these same constructs can become twisted by their recipients when received in an improper fashion. As we read Heroes, we should focus not so much on the ideas at play as much as on the function of these theological constructs in the lives of the characters on stage. Let’s see these dynamics at work.
Justin is the most taciturn of our heroes, but his importance is marked by the fact that he is the first character we see on stage. An ex-Marine and alumnus of Transfiguration College of Wyoming (TCW) who now works for the school, Justin fully embodies the school’s ethos: he is intellectually and religiously conservative while also being a natural outdoorsman. His assimilation of the System (Church vs. World) is nearly complete, manifesting in his commitment to the culture war, albeit mollified by his deep sense that the battle has already been lost. Still, he carries a gun throughout the night’s conversation, and at the end of the play he petitions the new president of TCW to allow him to teach marksmanship classes—so as to prepare its students for the approaching “war.” Though Justin is a man come late to faith, it seems that one significant thread of continuity attended his conversion from the World to the Church: violence, or perhaps the fear of a need for it.
Justin’s particular drama centers on the meaning of his relationship with Emily, a woman who appears to have softened his soul a considerable amount. Yet throughout the duration of the play, Justin stands on the brink of explaining to Emily that he has decided to leave TCW and embrace monastic life. This naturally comes as a shock to Emily, who thinks of Justin as her best friend and her support in illness. Even more, Emily appears to be in love with Justin, and she longs for bodily health so that she might one day be a “real woman” for him. If she could become a “real woman,” she could love as a woman. But Justin considers himself beyond the realm of romantic love. Burned from his failed marriage, Justin claims that there is, in fact, “nothing to love” in the World—a shocking statement from a person who once pledged his life to another.
Justin now longs to embrace more and more radically the Benedict Option. Proximity to the World is risk of contamination, Justin warns Kevin, and he himself means to take his own advice to heart by joining a monastery in Italy. Even in the seclusion offered by TCW, it seems, “the world is too much with us.” “I want us to put our heads down, preserve our culture, and wait for the hedonists to eat themselves alive” (35). Yet Justin’s rejection of the world is something more than a reasoned judgment discerned in peaceful clarity. The World remains in Justin through his continued attraction to Teresa, the woman he slept with in college when he “poisoned himself again,” in his words (47). The “antidote” of TCW proved ineffective against this poison, and so it is no surprise that Justin seeks even further seclusion. Explaining his decision to leave for the monastery, Justin confesses to Emily (93):
Justin. I was starting to feel a lot of anger and I don’t
And then a terrible compassion
And then this terrible compassion
And then paralysis . . .
I’ll just be a monk in Italy
I’ll just work the good small ways and pray for you and
Emily. I really need a buddy, J
I really need one so bad
Anger gives way to compassion—but compassion for whom? Justin desires to love Emily, yet at a distance. Distance is the only way to put an end to these conflicting emotions, Justin imagines, and we can therefore understand this flight to the monastery as a desperate attempt to break the gridlock of paralysis. Something in Justin simply will not be scrubbed clean. The play opens with him unable to rid his porch of the blood from his hunting kill—a perpetual reminder of his own bloodied past in the military—and it ends with his confession that Fr. Paul had been by to bathe his home with holy water to clean it of the screeching presence haunting the stain on the porch. “It didn’t help,” Justin admits. Nothing has helped, and so the “generator’s” screams go on interrupting our heroes and their complicated political and religious schemes.
In Justin, then, the System finds a near perfect vessel, and yet Justin still has not found peace. We wonder whether the monastery will be enough for him, or whether he will continue “scrubbing” away at every surface he encounters. For if the rending voice of incoherence breaking forth from his walls is not physically locatable, what will prevent it from following him wherever he goes?
Whatever the precise line count, it certainly feels as if Teresa talks more than any other character in this play. She aims for complete identification with the violent stream of ideas and opinions endlessly pouring out of her. Teresa is preparing for War against the World, and she is ready to fight in it as a woman of ideas—that is the goal. In this she takes after her mentor, Gina, the newly appointed president of Transfiguration Catholic College. She too is a woman who strives to reach the heights of pure thought, where ideas, and not the vicissitudes of emotion, decide how one ought to live in the world. Yet unlike Gina, Teresa has yet to arrive; unsure that she has “made it,” she returns to her college home for the weekend in order to earn some much-desired validation from Gina. That is the main reason for her visit—to alleviate a doubt as to whether she has in fact become what Gina prepared her to be. This crucial validation cannot come from her friends, whom, for all Teresa’s protestations, she does not actually love, or possibly even like. Nor can it come from her own family, as her mother is “weak,” and so Teresa must keep her distance, ignoring her and treating her like she is diseased. That approving gaze, which we internalize from our parents and which becomes a bedrock of self-identity for developing young people, here cannot be given, or at least cannot be received by Teresa.
The play confirms in several minor ways Teresa’s doubts about her achievement of adulthood. When Kevin asks Teresa if Walter Brueggemann (whom Teresa quotes in her diatribe) is a Protestant, she responds by locating herself as an adult in and through the infantalization she received at the hands of her professors (19):
Teresa. We’re allowed to read Protestants idiot, Dr. Jim gave me the book okay? he thought I could handle it
That an adult Catholic woman could be considered capable of “handling” reading a Protestant biblical scholar is a significant window into the complex socialization that goes into producing a Teresa. We witness the same dynamic when Teresa and Gina finally reunite (64-65).
Teresa. Dr. Presson! Congratulations! Your speech today was so beautiful.
Gina. Oh Teresa thank you so much. You look beautiful. It really means the world to me that y’all came out.
Teresa. We wouldn’t have missed it.
Gina. You’re too much. Look at you – you’re a real person!
Teresa. I am?
Gina. You are you are! And I heard you’re betrothed!
This validation buoys Teresa—at least until she and Gina butt heads when the question turns to Donald Trump. Gina outmaneuvers Teresa argumentatively by showing Teresa’s white nationalist politics to be simply the mirror image of “woke” identity politics. That means that Teresa’s politics are ultimately based not on reason but emotion. Gina brings the point home by reminding Teresa of the one time at TCW when she gave in to feeling above reason with calamitous results: her pre-marital sex with Justin. “You’ve reverted back to an emotional, fire-spewing slut.” This condemnation by Gina concludes her savage deconstruction of Teresa’s politics as a reaction formation against her fear of having a child and giving up her career to be a mother (84).
Gina. . . . You’re turning your fear of motherhood into a false machismo. Don’t invent a war just because you’re afraid to give your own body away to something higher. It was hard for me to admit this when I was your age, too, but real strength is in bearing a child—and then you stay open to as many as God wants to give you.
Teresa, whose argument with Emily on abortion forms the center of the play, is here unmasked; like Ivan Karamazov who waxes eloquent on the suffering of children and yet never interacts with a child in the length of the novel, so too Teresa’s vociferous pro-life apologetic conceals a contradiction in the one arguing it: she does not want children. The raw fear propelling her intellectual politicking has become plain to see. Saddest of all, however, is the fact that Teresa cannot accept this disclosure of her true desire, or lack of it, without ascribing it to the World that has “infected” her with careerism. What might soften her towards the women in the World—a recognition that she is very much like them, and that their desire for meaningful work outside of the home makes great sense to her—is rejected out of hand, for the System must be upheld. But how could Teresa think otherwise, if her ego ideal is Gina, the woman who put her life on the line, as well as the well-being of the family she could have left behind, in order to have more and more children for God after doctors warned against it? That was Gina’s own “war” against the World. And to that extent, Teresa has become exactly who Gina educated her to be, even if they disagree on the precise ground on which to fight the battle.
Kevin remarks in passing that Teresa, with her sophisticated monologues on religion and culture, has been doing her “best impression” of Gina all night. Still, from Teresa’s perspective, her efforts have been in vain; “betrothed” or otherwise, Teresa cannot escape the scarlet letter branded on her forever. She can never be a true “hero,” like Gina. She is weak at the core, and if she finds the weakness of Kevin and her own mother disgusting, then Teresa cannot help but find herself repulsive as well, and perhaps even more so. After all, it is one of the secrets of Jesus’s injunction, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” that we do, in fact, already love our neighbors as ourselves, because each of us is first and foremost a neighbor to him or herself.
She’s “a sad savvy woman . . . so cold. . . like she’s switched off a part of herself,” So opines Emily concerning Teresa. But what we should not miss is that Teresa had to switch off a part of herself because she feels too much. “I can’t make you feel the feelings,” she explains to Kevin, who knows he has no particular feelings towards the Virgin Mary, though he is told he should. Similarly, Teresa cannot make herself feel the feelings of desiring motherhood, what she “should” want, according to the System. Of all our heroes, Teresa is the most at war with herself, the most self-deceived, and the saddest too—however savvy.
Kevin represents the most self-consciously incomplete assimilation of the worldview propagated at TCW. Addicted to internet porn, desperately lonely and starved for physical intimacy, Kevin is generally pathetic. Nonetheless, he garners significant sympathy from the audience on account of his honesty, self-awareness, and the intensity of his suffering over his inability to live up to the Ideal. In this sense, he reminds the reader of Tolkien’s Gollum, or Endo’s Kichijiro, or any number of Dostoyevskian paradoxical heroes. He longs for a taste of the World; unlike the other characters (like Justin who had a life before TCW, Teresa who has already had sex, and Emily who worked with real women considering abortion), the World for Kevin is purely abstract and represents a perpetual source of temptation and fascination. He fears that “repression” has hurt him worse than indulgence might, and so he plays with the idea that he might simply “cut loose” and immerse himself in the World; if he did, he might in fact “love it.” But perhaps his calling is in fact to be “in the world and not of it,” like a Daniel in the lions’ den or a Jesuit in the world? The latter thought, however, immediately produces panic in him: “Ugh do I need to be a priest?”
Priestly celibacy or absolute physical indulgence; this intellectual vacillation is the legacy of the Dichotomy, of the System Kevin inhabits. He desperately wants a third way—a girlfriend, in fact. But he settles on another ideal to keep at bay the alternative he fears is inevitable. That third option is the way of the holy fool, which he plays to perfection throughout the play’s duration. It is this holy foolery that explains why Kevin is the most physical of all our heroes, vomiting and urinating, and dripping snot all over the stage. “All I do is come and cry,” Kevin whines (14). What the other characters fight to contain, as internal contradictions tear at their seams, Kevin lets it all flow out—he is as he seems, a man in whom there is no guile (yet with plenty of bile). In a word, he is the only character on stage aware of his dysfunction. We get clear confirmation of this when, bewildered by the mélange of emotions exhibited by her former students, the new president of TCW, Gina, asks “Why are you all so sad?” Justin and Emily deny it; Kevin is the only one who knows himself enough to say, “I don’t know.”
It is precisely this transparency that allows Kevin to function as a sort of Tiresias in the play, consistently pointing out the incoherencies of how the other characters pretend to embody the Ideal. Kevin can casually remark on how Teresa’s entire persona is a slavish imitation of Gina, even identifying her conservatism as her “brand.” Teresa may pontificate about the strange coincidence of grace and the grotesque manifested in the scandal of particularity of God’s paradoxical economy, but Teresa’s Catholic aestheticism, which gives her permission to champion Donald Trump’s cruel political program, apparently cannot go as far as attending to Kevin’s particular pain: “If you’re all about the particular, and ordinary people / Then why don’t you want to hear about my things / My particular things,” “my confused and fragile things, my soul things, my ordinary soul things” (21). Kevin can see. This is why he can play jester while Teresa holds court, making a mockery of her pretension to becoming a “hero” of our times:
Heroes haha—that’ so—Heroes—Can we—Like what is this a video game—My friend showed me a—VR—It friggin—Freaked me out—(53).
It is no surprise that after puncturing this absurd bubble of fantastical importance, Kevin runs off into the shadows to pee.
Yet for all his vision, Kevin remains blind to how his failure to assimilate the System has led him to twist its contents to achieve his own purposes. In one tense moment near the end of the play, the mask comes off. Kevin’s sore spot, as Teresa intuitively recognizes, is the meaning of his masculinity in the absence of female companionship. It is the true question provoking his occasional anxiety that he might “have to” become a priest.
So Teresa attacks his masculinity early on, by intimating that Kevin would “have a crush” on her fiancé, whose way of being a man is supposedly much closer to the genuine article than Kevin’s. Justin too joins in the game. Justin the hunter—whose history in the Marines as one who has killed fascinates Kevin the way every aspect of the World fascinates him—warns Kevin not to go to the city, where he may become infected by the “LGBTQ disease.” “Do you think I’d become gay?” Kevin asks, perhaps nervously (35). On a primordial level, Kevin understands that the intimations of homosexuality leveled against him are power plays, and so when Teresa calls him a “whiny bitch trapped in the body of a man,” (87) Kevin retorts by revealing the true psychic function of the “weakness” he has adopted for himself:
Kevin. You hate how weak I am
You all hate how weak I am
But in the next kingdom, my weakness will invert, and I’ll be as strong there as I was weak here. And you’ll be the weakest creature, Justin. You’ll stink like the devil. You’re gonna burn in hell motherfucker, I’m gonna fuck you in hell—
Ressentiment, eschatologized. The irony, of course, is that this very tantrum only reinforces Teresa’s—and now the audience’s—conviction of Kevin’s weakness, and it puts his bracing self-honesty in a different light, thereby retroactively justifying Teresa’s exhaustion at how every “big conversation” reduces, in the end, to a soliloquy about Kevin’s problems. The court jester remains in his state of adolescent arrested development while convincing himself that this weakness is in fact true power—if not here, then in the hereafter.
The “holy fool” script has broken down, and we are left simply with a fool striving for love, a fool whose only means of attaining that love (as far as his limited vision allows him to see) is to subvert the hierarchy of power, not to reject it altogether. We conclude that Kevin’s own bubble too must be punctured, and the one to do it is the only character in the play more honest than Kevin himself: Emily.
Kevin. I feel like a disease, Dr. Presson
Kevin. I feel like a disease.
Gina. What are you talking about?
Emily. Actually, I’m the diseased one, Kevin
Only Emily straddles the line between World and Church, thereby transcending the System and its grip on the heroes of the play. Kevin may serve in Heroes to poke holes in the characters’ intellectual constructs and personal affectations, but Emily disarms the audience by her simplicity, especially when she asks the most damning question of the play “Hey does this school actually . . . make good people?” For most characters in this play are truly cruel people.
The significance of Emily’s character is clearest when contrasted with Teresa, her opposite in nearly ever way. She is Teresa’s main intellectual opponent in the central argument of the play concerning the moral status of those who counsel women to procure abortions. Emily roundly and conclusively loses that argument. Brought up short by Teresa’s sharp subsumption of American abortion into the category of genocide, Emily can say nothing more than that she refuses to think of mothers who get abortion as equivalent to Nazis. Their argument, however, is not really about abortion. Instead, the question is how one should relate to those involved in America’s abortion system; for Emily, the proper response is empathy, and for Teresa, critical distance.
“It can’t be about gooey feeling, it’s thought—thought,” Teresa concludes (59). But Emily finds herself somewhere beyond thought. She did not inherit her mother Gina’s dialectical or rhetorical ability, and what is more, she lives racked with the pain of Lyme’s disease, not granting her much time to think. “I don’t know anything,” she repeats in the middle of the play, while Teresa expatiates. Still, Emily of all the characters in the play is the only one to utter the words “I love you” in any form. The playwright clearly positions her as the show’s true hero, and she gets the play’s final word, which incidentally, is hardly a word at all: “Yuppy-yoo.”
Emily’s heroism consists in her ability to feel the pain of the world that every other character is at work, in some fashion or another, to suppress within themselves. In her pain she has found a bridge to connect the World and the Church, and so each member of the pair no longer dialectically determines the other; rather, Emily sublates the opposition by attending to, and knowing concretely, the pain that unites those the System works to keep apart.
This is that “empathy” much-despised by Teresa, and its manifestation in Emily’s life should give Teresa significant reason to fear it, for it has indeed dismantled the System for Emily. As we noted earlier, if the System were to be dislodged from Teresa’s mind, she would have to face more squarely the fact that she is in fact just like the women in the World who would prefer to pursue career over children, and so she might in fact develop some empathy for them and for herself. For Emily, however, there is no firm boundary between “us” and “them”; pain has made her porous.
This porosity is what allows the World to speak through Emily in the play’s concluding fugue. It is rather significant that some commentators have considered Emily’s final monologue (or should we say dialogue?) to be an instance of demonic possession. In this interpretation (which the playwright has explicitly denied) these commentators in fact perform the System, erasing the voice of Tiffany, the woman who chose to have an abortion, who speaks through Emily in her final fury. Teresa may be able to think a Tiffany, but only Emily can come close to feeling her: “You can think of me but you cannot feel me. You cannot feel me.” Tiffany’s universal pox on the ideological house of this play has in its sights all the evasions of feeling manifested in the play, beginning with the one Justin offers to cloak Emily’s pain: “And fuck-if-you’re-feeling-it-you’re-one-of-the-lucky-ones” (95). Unlike Justin, who idealizes the “agony and the ecstasy,” Emily’s fears the pain and knows its cost (41):
Emily. I do not know I do not know about feeling it. I think feeling it might just be dangerous. It makes me feel violated. Taken over. I think it might just make me feel like a non-person.
This is why Tiffany, speaking in Emily and through her, can say that she is the world’s “vomit,” the product of complete depersonalization, produced by pain that cannot be understood. In her pain, she has become all flesh. Unlike Kevin’s emotional pain at his weakness, which he claims he has “chosen,” Emily’s pain is strictly given, like the divine nature of the Son that is given him by the Father, as she analogizes. Emily is the scandal of particularity that Teresa cannot see, not because it is grotesque as much as it is weak. This givenness is at the same time the question that Emily can articulate only in groans: “Why do I have a body?”
Emily represents in the play the limit point of reason, because her pain—as well as the pain of the Tiffanys of the world—cannot be answered by any of the schemas on hand. Yet even this does not exempt her from the play of theological intellectualization engaged in by the other characters on stage. Her intellectual defense against her pain, however, is unique for being less theoretical, less polished than Teresa’s “scandal of particularity” or Justin’s Benedict Option or Kevin’s “holy fool.” It is rather an embrace of pain in theological masochism, such that pain becomes God. And why are these two the same? Because they identify the limit of reason, the site of the inscrutable. “My faith is my pain” (27).
Emily. I’m just so tired of talking. There’s nothing to figure out. We just eat each other up and die one by one. And in heaven it’s going to be different, all the words and meaning will fade into no words and no meaning, just God everywhere through us all the time, and it’ll hurt so bad. It’ll hurt forever. You know? (95)
How can we make sense of Emily’s theology? For it is, in the final analysis, a theology, whatever Emily’s protestations to “know nothing.” In a sense, Emily’s existential position gives voice to a certain sort of Christology, one in which the fact of Christ’s sufferings as disclosive of God becomes thoroughly identified with divinity as such. If we wished to indulge in theological schematizations, we could say that Emily’s Christology is monophysite, but of the modern variety that affirms rather than denies divine passibility. Still, this characterization is not much help, because with these heroes, it is always more fruitful to ask what function an idea of God may play in their lives. Here it is clear that Emily’s Christology allows her first to keep God as present to her despite her pain, because of her pain (in a word, theodicy) while also permitting her to join Church and World into one suffering humanity (in a word, mission). Because Teresa’s god is the god of power and strength, Emily’s must be the god of weakness; Teresa is reason, and Emily feeling. That is why Emily’s final speech is an affirmation of pain as well as a release in the breakdown of speech (96-97):
Emily. It’s okay
I love pain
I love it
I love pain
We love it
. . .
Naming the Ghost
If Heroes of the Fourth Turning is a diagnosis of certain currents in American Catholicism, then what is the illness? The psychological misappropriation of theological doctrines, I would suggest. Heroes depicts a Catholic culture in which grace is not perfecting nature but rather destroying and traumatizing it. The play’s ultimate value for American Catholicism today is its unsparing exposition of how quasi-theological ideas can function in the life of the individuals and communities when good seed falls on rocky ground.
In such communities, the apocalyptic language of scripture—so necessary in times of genuine persecution against the Christian Church—is absolutized, no longer one voice in the symphony of Scripture but instead its only theme. The opposition between the Church and the World—so foundational for discerning when we must give ourselves over to costly love in the face of societal opposition—is made to override the more fundamental oneness of humanity; Adam and Christ remain two heads of two different humanities, and it is forgotten that Christ has displaced Adam as humanity’s chief representative: “For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living” (Rom 14:9). Properly understood, the World must always remain an ambiguous reality in Christian thought. It is both the sphere that rejected Christ and crucified him as well as the quarry God relentlessly hunts. Justin is wrong: in the world there is indeed “something to love,” and Christ has shown this in loving it.
The World is always, potentially, proto-Church, and so there is a unity in the image of God shared between Church and World that logically precedes any believer’s identification with the Church, though we might equally well say that the Church has logical priority even for the non-believer’s ultimate identification, since the Church is the natural-supernatural entelechy of the World. However we may want to frame it, it is clear that for Teresa and Justin (who seek respectively either war against the World or retreat from it), something in their Catholic formation has gone wrong precisely because they cannot make any lived sense of Jesus’s declaration: “If my kingdom were of this world, my followers would fight” (John 18:36).
But whereas Justin and Teresa represent the culture-warrior flank of failed assimilation, Kevin and Emily represent a growing rejection of the System due to sheer exhaustion from its oppressive weight, from its failure to help them deal with their concrete problems of human feeling and relating. When Kevin chastises Justin for talking of “eudaimonia” and urges him to prefer Plato over Aristotle, he eventually admits that he is “just saying words.” This is true of all our heroes, who are trapped in a world of ideas that they continually use to deflect from the feelings they cannot master and cannot control. They’re all just “saying words.” Kevin and Emily know this more than Justin and Teresa do, and for that reason they stand on the edge of abandoning reason, just as their foils have abandoned feeling. At the end of the play, language breaks down.
“Anything can be settled by an intellect that is not subject to the control of feeling—and yet the intellectual still suffers from a neurosis if feeling is undeveloped,” Jung’s words fit our heroes too well. But the truth of this diagnosis should not obscure that Kevin and Emily’s “solution” to the dialectic of feeling and reason, flesh and mind, never transcends the opposition that has produced their dysfunction. If Catholic culture teaches young people that their choice is between “feeling” and “reason,” we can expect continued division in the Church, as each side chooses its preference in questions of theological teaching that they cannot assimilate to their own lived experience. But it is the dichotomy itself that is the problem. For ultimately the choice to abandon speech is a reasoned choice, and the desire to reason one’s way through life is precisely that—a desire. What God has brought together in the human spirit, no one should attempt to tear asunder. Feeling and reason can achieve a higher integration, together they can be healed and elevated. Language must go on.
In my critique of the theology espoused by Teresa and Justin, I attempt to show why their theology of culture fails for dogmatic reasons. But that is hardly the central issue. In a world after Freud, we know better than ever how theological systems can function psychologically in various, and often nefarious, ways. Whatever is received is received according the nature of the receiver. It is not enough to correct the theology of a Teresa and Justin; they must instead be invited to know themselves, to feel the depths of their lived experience. They must learn to attend to their own pain and unhappiness, to their real points of intellectual and emotional distance from the doctrines they are not fully assimilating. They must be taught, in other words, to attend to the scandal of their own particularity.
Only what is acknowledged can be healed, and to the extent that emotional repression dominates their lives, to that extent Justin and Teresa will never be freed of the affect that motivates much of their thinking and choosing. Emily and Kevin, by contrast, must be invited to reason through their desires, to investigate why sexual pleasure is the pinnacle of human existence, in Kevin’s case, and to explore the reasons why Emily can think of God only in terms of pain—so much so that even her understanding of the Son’s Trinitarian “givenness” by the Father is the sheer givenness of a pained body you did not choose. These questions are not first and foremost theological, though theology of course has something to say about them. They are rather pre-theological, a matter of emotional self-discovery, and without such emotional self-appropriation, young people suffering neurotic contradictions will find that, again and again, reason’s desire to understand must be co-opted in service of shoring up a psyche that is always on the brink.
Some may balk at the idea that there is any realm of human existence that is pre-theological. Yet the very integrity of Christ’s human nature in the hypostatic union indicates that nature possesses its own integrity that perfecting and divinizing grace never abolishes. Catholic theology in fact possesses all the resources necessary to understand the place of the psyche in the intellectual and religious life, and theologians have been at work in promoting this synthesis for a long time now (see: Bernard Lonergan). Their work, and Catholic culture’s appropriation of it, is more vital than ever in an era of widespread disillusionment in the Church. “Hey does this Church actually . . make good people?” many both outside and inside the Church are asking. If Catholic culture overlooks the psychological self, it will continue to form “heroes” like Justin, Teresa, Kevin, and Emily. And that will ultimately threaten Catholic culture itself and the theological ideas central to it, for the viability of our theology depends not only on their inner coherence and validity with respect to the sources of Christian revelation, but also on what effect their propagation produces in real, suffering Christian—human—beings. If this claim is correct, then Heroes indicates that the greatest threat to Catholic culture is not the outside World but instead the psychic suffering inflicted on those who receive Church teaching as anything but liberating, good news.
EDITORIAL NOTE: The author wishes to thank Sonya Cronin for helpful comments on an earlier draft of this paper.