Mark McIntosh, who died in October 2021 of ALS at the age of sixty-one, was an Episcopal priest and a remarkable theologian. He held the inaugural professorship in Christian Spirituality at Loyola University Chicago. I never met McIntosh, but, as a reader of his work on Christian mystical theology, I have long felt a personal kinship with him.
McIntosh received his PhD from the University of Chicago, where he studied under David Tracy and Bernard McGinn (both well known to Commonweal readers), and wrote his doctoral dissertation on Hans Urs von Balthasar. Among his writings, three deserve special mention. Mystical Theology: The Integrity of Spirituality and Theology shows the continuing influence of von Balthasar, but also the emergence of McIntosh’s own distinctive voice. Discernment and Truth: The Spirituality and Theology of Knowledge explores the theological foundations of spiritual discernment and the transformative exigencies entailed by its truthful practice. Mysteries of Faith, addressed to a non-specialized audience, is a gem of direct communication rich in theological and spiritual insight.
The topic of his last book, The Divine Ideas, might appear to be more recondite, yet it was written while the author contended with growing physical paralysis and with an acute sense of the global threats posed by climate disruption, the pandemic, and misinformation. For McIntosh, immersion in the theological tradition concerning the “divine ideas” was not merely an academic exercise, but a matter of burning actuality.
Mystical theology as McIntosh understands it is not a branch or sub-division of theology, but rather a way of doing theology that keeps the inseparable connection of theology and spirituality front and center. It presents the mysteries of the faith as realities into which we are invited to enter rather than just ideas we are able to entertain. For this reason, prayer and liturgy are part of the practice of mystical theology. In the words of the fourth-century mystical theologian Evagrius Ponticus: the one who is a theologian prays and the one who prays is a theologian. Mystical theology is therefore not the investigation of extraordinary physical and psychic phenomena, but the cultivation, in mature Christian life, of a contemplative consciousness of the enlivening presence of God.
In The Divine Ideas, McIntosh marshals an array of Christian thinkers—from Origen and Augustine, through Maximus the Confessor and John Scotus Eriugena, to Aquinas and Bonaventure—who engaged with and transformed the Platonic philosophical tradition. For Platonists, the divine ideas constitute the permanent formal structures governing reality, of which the physical universe is only a derivative and passing reflection. Ideas, such as that of the Good and of Justice, are the ultimate measure of their shadowy earthly instantiations. Christian theologians, impelled by divine revelation, transformed this Platonic conception in two ways. Inspired by the doctrine of the Trinity, they viewed the Ideas not as subsistent realities, but as intrinsic to divine knowing itself. Indeed, the very generation of the Word from the Father includes the archetypal “ideas” of all that God will create. “All things were made through the Word, and without him was not anything made that was made” (John 1:3). And because “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14), the physical universe and bodily reality assume a unique dignity and luster. Rather than being depreciated as pale imitations of a far nobler reality, they became sacramental signifiers of an eternal truth and beauty. Here is how McIntosh recapitulates the Trinitarian and Christological revolution these theologians accomplished.
The divine ideas teaching holds that the ideas of all creatures exist within the one eternal Idea that God has of Godself, namely within the eternal Word of God—and, conversely, that the one eternal Word who speaks the truth of every creature exists immanently within all creatures…. This means also that the incarnate Word, Jesus of Nazareth, bears within himself the deep truth of every creature.
This is the complex fundamental theme that this book develops in a series of variations. McIntosh holds that the divine-ideas tradition generates a “contemplative momentum.” The same thing could be said of his book, which explores ever more ample vistas. Let me sketch a few of these.