Mordecai M. Kaplan and Process Theology: Metaphysical and Pragmatic Perspectives

by William E. Kaufman

William E. Kaufman is Rabbi of Temple Beth El, 385 High Street, Fall River, MA 02720. He received his Ph.D. in Philosophy from Boston University in 1971 and teaches philosophy at Rhode Island College. He is the author of The Case for God (Chalice Press, 1991), the first Jewish process theology, and his book, Contemporary Jewish Philosophies (Behrman House, 1976), is being republished by Wayne State University Press.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 192-203, Vol. 20, Number 4, Winter, 1991. Process Studies is published quarterly by the Center for Process Studies, 1325 N. College Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Both Mordecai Kaplan and Whitehead see the coherence of the idea of a non-absolute God within the framework of religious naturalism as a theological and philosophical concept. Thus, they steer a middle course between unreflective supernaturalism and reductive naturalism.

Mordecai M Kaplan (1881-1983), one of the major figures in contemporary Jewish thought and founder of the Reconstructionist movement in Judaism, exerted a profound impact on Jewish theology in the twentieth century.’ Kaplan’s major contribution to Jewish theology is his theory of transnaturalism. The purpose of this theory is to develop a philosophical theology that avoids what Kaplan considers to be the pitfalls of both supernaturalism and reductive naturalism. In this aim, Kaplan’s philosophical theology is similar to that of Alfred North Whitehead’s -- namely, to steer a middle course between unreflective supernaturalism and reductive naturalism.

Kaplan agreed with Whitehead that the combination of the ideas of Aristotle’s "unmoved mover" and God as eminently real, in Christian theology, led to the disastrous concept of "an aboriginal, eminently real, transcendent creator, at whose fiat the world came into being, and whose imposed will it obeys" (PR 342). For Kaplan, "the fact is that God does not have to mean to us an absolute being who has planned and decreed every twinge of pain, every act of cruelty, every human sin. It is sufficient that God should mean to us the sum of the animating, organizing forces and relationships which are forever making a cosmos out of chaos. This is what we understand by God as the creative life of the universe" (MG 76). Both Kaplan and Whitehead, therefore, develop conceptions of a non-absolute God within the framework of a religious naturalism.

Our task is threefold. First, we shall explain and evaluate what both White-head and Kaplan share -- namely, the idea of a revisionary or reconstructed concept of God -- a non-absolute God. Second, we shall distinguish and evaluate the contrast between Kaplan’s naturalistic pragmatism and Whitehead’s "naturalistic idealism" (CNT 136). And third, we intend to evaluate the pragmatic value, in terms of the task of ministry, of Kaplan’s idea of God and that of process theology based on the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead.


As I have indicated, Kaplan’s transnaturalism is a form of religious naturalism; that is, a reinterpretation or reconstruction of the idea of God in naturalistic terms. Such reconstructed God-ideas are often attacked from both sides of the spectrum. Many atheists on the one hand, and fundamentalists on the other hand, deny the legitimacy of reinterpreted God-ideas.

For them, "religious naturalism" is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms. They maintain that the word God must denote a transcendent Being who created the universe. Any other usage, it is claimed, violates "the ethics of words."2 The larger issue raised by Kaplan’s transnaturalism and Whiteheadian process theology is the coherence of the idea of a non-absolute God, within the framework of religious naturalism, as a theological and philosophical concept.

First, let us note how Kaplan’s transnaturalism differs from strict naturalism.

Naturalism may be defined as "the disposition to believe that any phenomenon can be explained by appeal to general laws confirmable either by observation or by inference from observation" (CRN 21). This does not mean that everything that happens in the universe is at present explainable. Rather, naturalism represents a methodological recommendation concerning the theory of knowledge. What it suggests is that the only instruments of knowledge we possess are reason and critically analyzed experience. Claims to knowledge based on a special faculty, such as mystical intuition, must therefore be recognized as assertions of faith which cannot be verified and can only be evaluated in terms of their consequences for human conduct. The reliance on reason and critically analyzed experience is thus the method of naturalism, its logic of inquiry. Naturalism as a theory of reality, however, can be problematic because of the ambiguity of the term "nature." For most naturalists, nevertheless, it is safe to say that "nature" signifies the totality of reality -- its substance, functioning and principles of operation, since what distinguishes naturalism from other metaphysical standpoints is its claim that there is nothing beyond nature.

Let us now examine Kaplan’s transnaturalism and determine its divergence from strict naturalism. To begin with, let us look at Kaplan’s definition of "transnaturalism":

Transnaturalism is that extension of naturalism which takes into account much that mechanistic or materialistic or positivistic science is incapable of dealing with. Transnaturalism reaches out into the domain where mind, personality, purpose, ideals, values and meanings dwell. It treats of the good and the true. Whether or not it has a distinct logic of its own is problematic. But it certainly has a language of its own, the language of simile, metaphor and poetry. That is the language of symbol, myth and drama. In that universe of discourse, belief in God spells trust in life and man, as capable of transcending the potentialities of evil that inhere in his animal heredity, in his social heritage, and in the conditions of his environment. Transnaturalist religion beholds God in the fulfillment of human nature and not in the suspension of the natural order. Its function is not to help man overcome the hazards of nature, but to enable him to bring under control his inhumanity to his fellow man. (JWS 10)

We can see from his definition of transnaturalism that Kaplan finds strict naturalism inadequate because it is incapable of "dealing with" the phenomena of mind, personality, purpose, ideals, values, and meanings. On the other hand, underlying Kaplan’s entire philosophical theology is a polemic against supernaturalism, according to which God is not subject to any empirical law of nature and can therefore suspend the natural order at any point in time. Thus Kaplan rejects the historicity of the miracles described in the Bible and the logic of supernaturalism inherent in the Jewish tradition. Kaplan holds that the modern approach to reality has rendered the dichotomy of natural and supernatural irrelevant. The tendency nowadays, Kaplan asserts, "is to enlarge the concept of the natural so that it might include that plus aspect of reality which the traditional outlook did indeed sense but not altogether apprehend" (JC 315). Hence, transnaturalism is precisely that "enlargement" of the natural to include the plus aspect of mind, purpose, values, etc. Through this enlargement of the natural, denoted by the term transnaturalism, Kaplan is seeking an explanation for the phenomena of mind, purpose and values, which he holds cannot be accounted for by strict naturalism.

But what kind of explanation is Kaplan seeking? What Kaplan is looking for is cosmic support for human values. Kaplan stresses the category of wisdom, which he defines as "the sense of values" (REN 21). And he maintains that human wisdom is a reflection of Divine wisdom: "the wisdom by which man is expected to control and direct his life reflects the wisdom by which God’s laws govern all nature" (REN 30). Kaplan sees the wisdom of God’s laws manifested in the polarity of independence and interdependence in nature: "the universal law of polarity whereby everything in the universe, from the minutest electron to the vastest star, is both self-active and inter-active, independent and interdependent" (REN 34, 35). This model constitutes, for Kaplan, the goal of our moral and ethical strivings -- the synthesis of independence and interdependence. As Kaplan explains:

To become fully human, man has to achieve, on a self-conscious level, a process that operates on a non-conscious level, in all living things, namely, the synthesis of individuation and interaction, or of independence and interdependence. . . Accordingly, God as the power that makes for salvation is the cosmic process of organicity, which, in sub-human creatures, synthesizes individuation and interaction on an unconscious level, and in man, on a conscious level. The function of ethical religion is to translate this idea of God into a way of life that would result in a successful synthesis. Ethical religion is thus a means of character building. (J 99)

Human moral responsibility is thus grounded, for Kaplan, in the Divine cosmic process of organicity, organicity being the key element in the overall process of creativity.

We can now understand exactly what Kaplan means by "transnatural." Among the dictionary definitions of the prefix "trans" is: "through and through; so as to change completely" (WNCD 402). Kaplan maintains that God is the creative process which transforms the chaos of the universe into an organic whole: "Nature is infinite chaos, with all its evils forever being vanquished by creativity, which is God as infinite goodness" (REN 51).

This is a clear departure by Kaplan from strict naturalism. For Kaplan, nature is not the totality of being but infinite chaos forever being vanquished by God, identified as infinite goodness and creativity. It is imperative to note that, for Kaplan, God is not a being or entity. Kaplan writes:

There is only one universe within which both man and God exist. The so-called laws of nature represent the manner of God’s immanent functioning. The element of creativity, which is not accounted for by the so-called laws of nature, and which points to the organic character of the universe or its life as a whole, gives us a clue to God’s transcendent functioning. God is not an identifiable being who stands outside the universe. God is the life of the universe, immanent insofar as each part acts upon every other, and transcendent insofar as the whole acts upon each part. (JC 316)

In the foregoing passage, Kaplan negates supernaturalism, the view that God is an identifiable being who stands outside the universe. And he also negates strict naturalism when he identifies the transcendent aspect of God with the element of creativity, which is not accounted for by the laws of nature. Strict naturalism, we noted, is the disposition to believe that any phenomenon can in principle be explained by appeal to general laws of nature.

We are now in a position to note what Kaplan and Whitehead have in common. Kaplan’s idea of creativity, which cannot be accounted for by the so-called laws of nature, echoes Whitehead’s metaphysical concept of creativity, the nisus toward the endless production of new syntheses. For both thinkers creativity transcends the laws of nature (for Whitehead, since the present laws of nature are relative only to our present cosmic epoch, whereas creativity is a universal metaphysical principle).

Both thinkers, we have seen, are mercilessly critical of unreflective supernaturalism.

Both thinkers adamantly reject the concept of Divine omnipotence, in part due to their acute sensitivity to the problem of evil. Whitehead, for example, writes: "The limitation of God is his goodness.... It is not true that God is in all respects infinite. If He were, He would be evil as well as good" (RM 147). And Kaplan states: "If God, conceived as function, denotes whatever is of ultimate value to mankind, He cannot be represented as a personal Being infinite in power and in goodness, which is a contradiction in terms.... The power of God is inexhaustible but not infinite" (REN 51).

Both stress the idea of value. Whitehead claims that value refers to "the intrinsic reality of an event" (SMW 131). He holds that deity is "that factor in the universe whereby there is importance, value, and ideal beyond the actual" (MT 102). And Kaplan, we have seen, maintains that "God" denotes "whatever is of ultimate value to mankind" (REN 51).

Thus, both Whitehead and Kaplan hold revisionary concepts of God, or reconstructed God ideas. What these redefinitions have in common is that God is limited by His goodness and is not to be conceived of as the Creator of the entire universe, the good as well as the evil. To use Whitehead’s clever terminology, both he and Kaplan refuse to pay God "metaphysical compliments," which would render the Deity as "the supreme author of the play," causing us "to discern in Him the origin of all evil as well as of all good" (SMW 179).

The theological postures of Kaplan and Whitehead have the virtue of undercutting the problem of evil, for the problem only arises in acute form if God is conceived of as omnipotent -- a view which both Whitehead and Kaplan repudiate.

But both theologies face metaphysical and religious problems. Metaphysically, the problem is stated cogently by Richard Swinburne: "To start with, theism postulates a God with capacities which are as great as they logically can be. He is infinitely powerful, omnipotent. That there is an omnipotent God is a simpler hypothesis than the hypothesis that there is a God who has such and such limited power.... A finite limitation cries out for an explanation of why there is just that particular limit, in a way that limitlessness does not" (EG 94). Religiously, the issue is posed by Robert C. Neville in these words: "I think nothing short of the ground or principle of the whole of things is supreme enough to be worshipped" (CG 14).

How would Whitehead and Kaplan defend their theologies against these challenges? To hypothesize how they would answer these objections requires us to distinguish between their respective approaches -- namely, Whitehead’s naturalistic idealism and Kaplan’s naturalistic pragmatism.


The first point to notice, in distinguishing Whitehead’s theology from Kaplan’s, is that Whitehead, unlike Kaplan, does not identify creativity with God. Whitehead does not identify creativity with God because, for Whitehead, God has to have a character as an identifiable actual entity. "Actual entities -- also termed actual occasions -- are the final real things of which the world is made up.... They differ among themselves: God is an actual entity, and so is the most trivial puff of existence in far-off empty space" (PR 18). Thus, for Whitehead, creativity is too amorphous and protean to be identified as divine. In contrast, Kaplan, to avoid reification of God, resists identifying God as a being or entity of any sort and allows the term "God" to represent creativity or the creative process insofar as it ‘makes for" human salvation or self-fulfillment.

Kaplan would have agreed wholeheartedly with M. Scott Peck, who contends that it is fallacious to think of God as a discrete entity that is metaphysically locatable.3 Kaplan calls this the error of reification or hypostasis -- of treating a process like a thing. Emphatically, Kaplan asserts:

In strictly philosophical thought, the very notion of a personal being, especially when not associated with a physical body, is paradoxical. Nothing would, therefore, be lost if we substituted for that notion the one of process, which, at least with the aid of science, most of us find quite understandable. (FAJ 183)

Specifically, Kaplan maintains that God is the "transnatural" cosmic process "that makes for man’s life abundant or salvation" (FM 183).

Kaplan’s view is quite similar to that of Henry Nelson Wieman, who used the word "God" to denote "that something upon which human life is most dependent for its security, welfare and increasing abundance" (RESM 9). Wieman variously referred to God with such terms as Growth, Creative Synthesis, Creativity, Creative Event and Creative Interchange, for much the same reasons as Kaplan.

Noting the differences in the approaches of Whitehead and Kaplan, let us see how they each would reply to the upholders of Divine omnipotence.

Whitehead would answer the metaphysical question by holding that both God and World are ultimate, as in his famous antithesis "It is as true to say that God creates the world, as that the world creates God" (PR 348). For Whitehead, God and world require each other. He would criticize Swinburne for viewing God as eminent reality, maintaining that nothing, not even God, has aseity as a totally independent being.

Kaplan, unlike Whitehead, tended to be a neo-Kantian rather than reverting to pre-Kantian habits of thought. Just as Whitehead held to a dualism of God and World, so Kaplan held to a dualism of God (creativity) and world (chaos), but in Kaplan’s case this was because of what he deemed to be the limits of the human mind. Kaplan maintained: "The human mind, as Kant has shown, cannot really solve the problem of absolute beginnings, and identifying creativity with transformation marks the limit of its capacity (MOG 61).

Unlike Whitehead, Kaplan was thus reluctant to engage in metaphysics because of his Kantian inhibitions. Although he was sometimes drawn to make what seem to be metaphysical statements in response to questions about his theology, Kaplan’s overall methodology in theology was pragmatic or functional. Thus, Kaplan stated,

That we cannot know what Divinity is apart from our idea of it should not be surprising. There is nothing we can possibly know apart from our idea of it. We are told, for instance, that matter is frozen energy. Yet how helpful is this definition to us? What do we really know about energy except the way it functions? (TCE 70,71)

In the foregoing passage, Kaplan is advocating a pragmatic, functional approach to the idea of God, antithetical to metaphysics. God functions for Kaplan as the power that makes for human salvation or self-fulfillment. As for what God is, apart from nature and humanity, Kaplan would claim ignorance. His retort to Swinburne would be, "I just don’t understand what you mean." In this Kaplan is not only a good Kantian but also a faithful Maimonidean in stressing the unknowability of what God is, metaphysically.

As far as religious availability is concerned, Whitehead held that the idea of an omnipotent God who put all sorts of imperfections in the world was a morally outrageous notion (see DANW 370). A Deity whose limitation is his goodness was far more worshipful for Whitehead. Kaplan’s response to this question was, in the spirit of John Dewey, a call to religious inquiry. Kaplan asserted vigorously, "It is difficult to understand why religion should not be accorded the same right of revising and correcting itself as is accorded to science and philosophy" (FAMJ 192).

Kaplan’s point here is an important one. Many people assume that only an omnipotent God is worthy of worship. But since the Holocaust, this assumption has been called into question. It is now time for religious experimentation and inquiry. Theology must become more empirical. Instead of starting with a preconceived notion of what God must be, perhaps a more fruitful course would be to attend, first, to spiritual qualities of experience that actually exist, and then infer from these textures of experience what the nature of God might be. As Nancy Frankenberry has stated, "We do not know the true’ God" (RRE 30).


The major task in the ministry, to which both Whitehead’s and Kaplan’s process theologies are germane, is consoling those who have suffered tragedies, especially bereavement, and helping those who have suffered human injustice and oppression.

When a parishioner, after losing a loved one, asks, "Why me?" how might the clergyman respond?

Kaplan’s advice to the clergyman would be "to shift the problem of evil from the field of thought to that of action. Instead of asking ourselves, ‘How can life be considered good when there is so much evil in it?’ let us ask ourselves, What must I do to make the world better?’" (FAMJ 236)

I would imagine that a Whiteheadian’s advice might be more along the lines of what David Griffin has asserted in God, Power and Evil. Griffin rejects views of those, like Kaplan, who argue that the problem of evil is an existential, only practical problem. He contends, rather, that if human theoretical beliefs are central to the human experience of evil, then the effort to overcome human evil cannot omit the theoretical dimension of the problem" (OPE 16).

Whereas common sense would support the Kaplanian approach, cognitive therapy would buttress the Whiteheadian orientation. According to cognitive therapy, the way we think determines the way we feel. Thus, it would be crucial to get the bereaved person to talk about how he or she thinks about God and the problem of evil.

Both Kaplan and Whitehead would agree that the traditional theistic hypothesis -- namely, the idea that a benevolent and omnipotent Deity is in control of the universe -- generates unrealistic expectations in terms of human evils. As John B. Cobb has suggested, we should not be surprised when bad things happen. This is the way things often do happen. But when we see good things happen, we ought to be open to asking the question: "Must there not be something at work other than narrow and brutal self-interest and absolutization of one’s own group? Can we not call that God?" (PETM 175)

If Whitehead and Kaplan have demonstrated anything, it is that the question, "What shall we call God?" must be open and subject to revision and inquiry. The meaning of the word "God" must itself be in process, consequent on new human insights into and discoveries about the vast, complex and mysterious universe in which we live.



CG -- Robert C. Neville. Creativity and God: A Challenge to Process Theology. New York: Seabury Press, 1980.

CNT -- John B. Cobb, Jr. A Christian Natural Theology. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1965.

CRN -- Jack J. Cohen. The Case for Religious Naturalism. New York: Reconstructionist Press, 1958.

DANW -- Lucien Price. Dialogues of Alfred North Whitehead. Boston: Little Brown & Co., 1954.

EG -- Richard Swinburne. The Existence of God. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.

FAJ -- Mordecai M. Kaplan. The Future of the American Jew. New York: The Macmillan Co., 1949.

GPE -- David Ray Griffin. God, Power and Evil: A Process Theodicy. Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, 1991.

J -- Mordecai M. Kaplan. "What Is Our Human Destiny?" Judaism 2/3 (July 1953). JC -- Mordecai M. Kaplan. Judaism as a Civilization. New York: Schocken, 1967.

JWS -- Mordecai M. Kaplan. Judaism Without Supernaturalism. New York: Reconstructionist Press, 1958.

MOG -- Mordecai M. Kaplan. The Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion. New York: The Jewish Reconstructionist Foundation, 1947.

PETM -- John B. Cobb, Jr. "The Problem of Evil and the Task of Ministry." Encountering Evil. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1981.

REN -- Mordecai M. Kaplan. The Religion of Ethical Nationhood. New York: The Macmillan Co., 1970.

RESM -- Henry Nelson Wieman. Religious Experience and Scient4fic Method. New York: Macmillan, 1926.

RRE -- Nancy Frankenberry. Religion and Radical Empiricism. New York: State University of New York Press, 1987.

TCE -- Mordecai M. Kaplan. "The Meaning of God for the Contemporary Jew." Tradition and Contemporary Experience. Ed. Alfred Jospe. New York: Schocken, 1970.

WNCD -- Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary.



1Kaplan’s magnum opus is Judaism as a Civilization (1934). His most important theological work is The Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion (1936). Other volumes include The Future of the American Jew. (1949), Judaism Without Supernaturalism (1958). The Religion of Ethical Nationhood (1970). and many other works. The Reconstructionist movement in Judaism represented for Kaplan an effort to reconstruct the theology and ideology of Judaism to fit the modern age. The movement is now in process, attempting to come to terms with post-modernism as well as modernism.

2The phrase "the ethics of words" is utilized by Sidney Hook in his essay "The Atheism of Paul Tillich" in Religious Experience and truth, edited by Sidney Hook (New York: New York University Press, 1961), p. 59, and also by Corliss Lamont in The Philosophy of Humanism (New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1967), p. 143, to discredit redefinitions of God.

3See M. Scott Peck. The Road Less Traveled (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1978), p. 262, for a popular exposition of what Kaplan meant to designate by the term "reification."