Today’s ideas were sparked by a fantastic podcast, which I’ve mentioned before: Harry Potter and the Sacred Text. Particularly this episode on Ch. 14 of book 1, “Norbert the Norwegian Ridgeback,” which is focused on the theme of Rebellion. A brief summary of what the episode pointed to that is relevant for this discussion: essentially that Hogwarts, under Dumbledore’s jurisdiction allowed for a certain amount of rebellion, what I’m calling institutionalized rebellion (which is a complicated and arguably paradoxical turn of phrase, but one that I think is useful here). Examples of this include Peeves’ continued presence at the school despite constant threats to its order and stability and not seeming to serve any strong purpose, Fred and George’s tricks that occasionally get them in trouble but never result in expulsion even though that’s arguably what they deserve, Hagrid’s position as game-keeper after being expelled, etc.
This sort of institutionalized rebellion is essentially the institution creating a space for some amount of rebellion against the rules and norms and power-structures that are in place (this may be an example of subversion and containment where the hierarchy/institution sees subversion or rebellion taking place and decides that the only way to combat it is to embrace it to some degree, but with some shift). That’s definitely a discussion worth having (and one that is touched on in the podcast—the efficacy of rebellion and what sorts of actions are necessary for something to qualify as rebellion), however, I think I’ll need to largely table that for now. It’ll be a thread underneath some of what I have to say, but won’t be the focus.
Anyway, what does all this have to do with Mormonism? What can the Church do to institutionalize rebellion? Why would it want to? What is the benefit of this? What are the costs?
Well. I may not have definitive answers to any of those questions, but here are some thoughts I think worth pursuing.
It strikes me that institutionalized rebellion within Mormonism would allow for a greater freedom in discourse and more vulnerability of members in expressing doubts, questions, concerns, experiences, etc. that may be outside the norm or mainstream Mormon experience. Though perhaps it is better to start with a discussion of what sorts of behaviors I’m talking about.
First, I think a more free-wheeling, less correlated Church teaching experience with instructors having more freedom to express their ideas and to speculate and work through difficult issues would be a central piece of this. Second, on a related note, I think allowing for a sort of loyal opposition within the membership would be remarkably healthy for the Church as an institution and the membership. Third, more flexibility with the Word of Wisdom and perhaps other similarly largely physical commandments (yes, I know that all things physical are also spiritual and that no commandment was ever given that was not spiritual). Fourth, more real autonomy and leadership for youth leaders (Come Follow Me is moving in this direction, but seems to struggle in its implementation). Fifth, leaning into the idea that it is not meet that we be commanded in all things, allowing for a variety of responses and lifestyles surrounding any number of things.
I think that these ways of allowing for institutionalized rebellion would show that the Church values the membership as individuals with thoughts and ideas and promptings. It would also emphasize the importance of personal revelation, which we do currently to a certain extent, but I think these rebellions would create a stronger sense of empowerment from personal revelation by encouraging people to figure out the best way for them to move forward and to potentially challenge authority. These changes strike me as building a stronger, more devoted membership that needs to be invested at a higher degree than current practices. There’s a deeper level of intellectual engagement at work when the right answer may differ from the correlated one (which is a possibility that some would reject, but I think happens with some frequency). I think it also requires a level of spiritual maturity which we should all be striving for, but many Church practices seem to do the opposite, that is spiritually infantilize people.
Are there risks associated with this? Absolutely. Any time that rebellion is allowed, let alone encouraged/institutionalized, there is a risk for undermining the authority of the institution. In this case, it could be possible for false doctrine to be taught and for people to ‘lead others astray’ to some extent. Maybe youths would do terrible things and ruin their future. Maybe it would create an environment of contention and disagreement that led to factions and fissures and schisms.
It would also require more from the members, which may not be practical when a decent amount is already required and for the sorts of practices that I’m advocating/describing/wishing for here to really work you’d need a certain sort of membership that is pretty highly educated (or trained in ways to supplement levels of education) and intellectually curious. That’s a problem with an increasingly global church. Though perhaps there would be ways to adjust the desired institutionalized rebellion depending on local needs.
I think it’s worth it. I’m not quite sure how to get there or how I can make this a thing besides expressing my own sorts of unorthodox beliefs when I get the chance and in ways that feel non-threatening and not condemning the beliefs of others.
These are largely intellectual rebellions partially because that’s the sort that are my natural affinity and partially because I think there’s a much easier case to be made for intellectual rebellion than other kinds (though those definitely have value and power).
As always, would love to hear your thoughts on the practices I suggest here, other possibilities for institutionalized rebellion, other dangers, problems of the practice as a whole, etc.