Mordecai Kaplan: Accepting Darwinism

The founder of Reconstructionist Judaism takes a pragmatic approach.

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Kaplan's concern here is clearly moral behavior. Kaplan shares this concern with most other theologians, Jewish and Christian, who address themselves to Darwinism. Kaplan does not reject Darwinism, but only, at this point, conditions it on divine impetus.

Of course, past divine initiative does not necessarily guarantee future human salvation as a result of the structure of the cosmos. Thus Kaplan must clarify his position. Toward the conclusion of Judaism as a Civilization, Kaplan adumbrates the metaphysical position that he will later articulate repeatedly: 

"Ultimately, the forces for good that inhere in the world and in human nature will give rise to a just social order, one in which every human being will be able to achieve the full measure of self-realization and accord to his neighbor the same right and opportunity. The evolution of mankind, though marred by frequent and disheartening reactions, moves irresistibly in the direction of universal security and freedom. From the standpoint of the Jewish religion, ethical purpose does not emerge merely as an incident of social history, but is a directive and creative force."

As Schweid has argued, Kaplan camouflaged his deeply traditional, religious sentiments in scientific garb. Not only did creation have a divine impetus, but the progressive nature of evolution is guaranteed by "the forces for good that inhere in the world and in human nature." Of course, we must distinguish progress from design. Kaplan affirms the former, but endorses the latter only in the most general fashion.

While holding fast to the conviction of an ideal future, as in the foregoing citation, Kaplan nowhere suggests that the path to "universal security and freedom" is preordained. It is precisely in this arena that human freedom, contingency, and what Kaplan calls "spiritual selection" operate.

Open-Ended Reality

Kaplan's theology was greatly influenced by Bergson and John Dewey. Both thinkers understood reality as an open-ended process that has no preordained goal or telos. Evolution, for Kaplan, is necessarily progressive, but teleologically undetermined. Perfection is a moving target because of the creative element in human behavior. Humanity is, quite literally, shaping its future evolution.

Kaplan exploits the idea of emergent evolution, which scientists apply to those properties that do not appear at the level of their constituent parts, such as consciousness, and uses it to describe an empowered humanity taking responsibility for shaping its own evolution.

"Unlike other living creatures [man] must take a hand in his own metamorphosis. He must consciously and deliberately share in the cosmic or divine process which impels him to become fully human.... The nature of man, far from being a finished affair, is still in the making. Just as modern man is an improvement over the caveman, so his continued development may be assumed in the process of emergent evolution." (Kaplan, Religion of Ethical Nationhood: Judaism's Contribution to World Peace)

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Shai Cherry

Shai Cherry, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of Jewish Thought at Vanderbilt University.