Witches, Saints, and Heretics

Was a witch a real thing or was she a construction that was used to explain or scapegoat certain
behaviors or certain individuals?

Witches, Saints, and Heretics
“The question I ask students is: Was a witch a real thing or was she a construction that was used to explain or scapegoat certain behaviors or certain individuals?” says religious studies senior lecturer William Dohar. / Image courtesy Wikimedia

Who could resist a class with that name? Not the 72 students who enrolled in Fall 2020, when former priest and current religious studies senior lecturer William Dohar taught two courses on the topic. The class is an opportunity to study the underlying theme of “religious outsiders” in historical and contemporary settings. It’s surprisingly still relevant today.

You tell your students to be prepared to confront a lot of ambiguity in this course: Is she a witch or healer? Is he a heretic or a reformer? Is a saint mad, or close to God?

What I want to say about this course is that almost immediately, students get disabused of their previous perceptions of these categories. Heretics, depending on where you stand, could be reformers.

For Catholics, Martin Luther is a heretic. Galileo is a heretic in a sense because of his science.

Some saints could be thought of as social heretics. St. Francis of Assisi had a short career as a soldier, was captured and imprisoned. After he was let out of prison because he was sick, he’s sent home to convalesce, and in the course of his recovery, he has this vision where he hears God saying to him, “Rebuild my church.”

The question I pose to students is: Who are the heretics in your life and world?

What’s a contemporary example you offer in your class?

I have them watch a film called Captain Fantastic, about a family that goes off the grid. A father and a mother and six kids live in the wilderness in the Pacific Northwest, with no running water or electricity, and they hunt for food or grow. And something happens in the story that requires the family to travel to visit the mother’s family, and it’s wonderful. And the students start to wonder: Who is the heretic here and who is the normative person, the family living off the land, or the rest of us?

My point is, I don’t want them to associate heresy only with religious saints or witches, something that happened to other people in other times and other places. I want them to relate to the teaching of those categories in terms of being the outsiders, of being in proximity to the outsiders, and the value of religious tolerance, and how you deal with these things.

Read more of the interview with Dohar on the Illuminate blog.

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