St. John of the Cross affirms the natural powers of human reason to a degree that may surprise those less acquainted with the philosophic foundations of his thought. Often people reduce him to the label “mystic” (which for them means something mysterious) and they notice, with a glance at the Table of Contents of his works, that he writes much about extraordinary spiritual phenomena (e.g., locutions, tricks of the devil, union with God that “annihilates” the natural faculties); they then suppose that the Carmelite master thinks that the spiritual life consists mostly in these things. But the following passages highlight a little-emphasized aspect of his teaching: a robust emphasis of the goodness and power of natural reason.
For example, St. John of the Cross discusses why, under the law of grace, we ought to shy away from looking for extraordinary supernatural knowledge. Regarding faith, his basic position is that reason, enlightened by the revelation brought in Christ and purified by grace, is in principle more than sufficient for us to grasp the truths of the faith and all matters touching on or leading up to it (see Ascent of Mt Carmel 2.22.3). St. John of the Cross eschews both what we could call supernaturalism and fideism: the first being the attitude of those who want “special signs” in order to grasp God’s will; the second being those who wrongly think that the mind’s natural powers are insufficient to understand natural truths.These tendencies are interconnected.
A number of scholars have noted the Carmelite’s rejection of supernaturalism (see Garrigou-Lagrange’s discussions about how to treat “extraordinary charismatic phenomena"). His position against any desire for extraordinary supernatural knowledge is best summed up in a passage that simultaneously affirms the power of natural reason as well as reason illumined by faith:
“There is no necessity for any of this kind of knowledge since one can get sufficient guidance from natural reason and the law and doctrine of the Gospel” (Ascent 2.21.4).
We should not that here he is speaking of natural reason freed from slavery to the appetites, purified from all disordered attachments to lower things. St. John of the Cross insists that we give priority to the judgment of reason, which means that we should trust the ability of natural reason to reach a great deal of truth:
“We should make such use of reason and the law of the Gospel that, even though—whether we desire it or not—some supernatural truths are told to us, we accept only what is in harmony with reason and the Gospel law. And then we should receive this truth, not because it is privately revealed to us, but because it is reasonable, and we should brush aside all feelings about the revelation. We ought, in fact, to consider and examine the reasonableness of the truth when it is revealed even more than when it is not, since in order to delude souls the devil says much that is true, conformed to reason, and will come to pass” (Ibid.).
When natural reasoning is working properly, the Carmelite says, “There is no difficulty or necessity that cannot be solved by these means, which are very pleasing to God and profitable to souls.” But, on the other hand, when the power of natural reason is implicitly denied through a supernaturalism, a desire to receive special knowledge through extraordinary means, he says:
“I consider a desire to know things through supernatural means far worse than a desire for spiritual gratifications in the sensitive part of the soul. I fail to see how a person who tries to get knowledge in this supernatural way — as well as the one who commands this or gives consent — can help but sin, at least venially, no matter how excellent the motives or advanced in perfection that person may be” (Ibid.).
Whereas St. John’s rejection of supernaturalism has been appreciated by some, less noticed, perhaps, has been St. John’s rejection of fideism. Without using the language of “fideism”, he says that Moses did not require special supernatural help to arrive at a prudential decision to appoint 72 elders to help him determine matters of law. Sufficient for this was his power of reason which helped him weigh the advice of his father-in-law Jethro:
God approved this advice. But he did not give it, because human reason and judgment were sufficient means for solving this problem. Usually God does not manifest such matters through visions, revelations, and locutions, because he is ever desirous that insofar as possible people take advantage of their own reasoning powers. All matters must be regulated by reason save those of faith, which though not contrary to reason transcend it (Ascent 2.22.13).
The Carmelite friar goes on to explain that sometimes God does indeed give extraordinary communications to people, but that these communications could easily make the recipient worse:
“On judgment day God will punish the faults and sins of many with whom he communed familiarly here below and to whom he imparted much light and power, for they neglected their obligations and trust in the their converse with him and the power he bestowed on them” (Ascent 2.22.15).
One might wonder why God, in communing with his friends, did not reveal their duties and their faults to them. It could seem odd that God would impart them “much light and power” about many things, but not about what is most important for the individual: the state of his own soul. St. John replies: “It was unnecessary for God himself to inform them of these faults, since he had already done so through the natural law and the reasoning powers he had bestowed on them” (Ibid.). Hence, one of the chief faults of those who receive what we now call extraordinary charismatic graces is that they failed to reflect upon certain things which were knowable by reason, that is, truths treated in what is typically called “natural philosophy.” Hence, St. John’s critique of those who confuse matters of natural prudence with those of the faith, or look for supernatural enlightenment regarding natural matters, could be called a critique of fideism understood in a broad sense.