Loyola University Chicago

College of Arts & Sciences

The Divine Ideas Tradition in Christian Mystical Theology

Though God is not present as an item within the universe, God is intimately present in all creatures and all life – in a simple sense, this is a crucial implication of the divine ideas tradition.

A notion which can be found hard at work in the thought of figures such as Augustine, Aquinas, and Catherine of Siena, the divine ideas tradition asserts the teaching that all beings have an eternal existence as aspects of God’s mind. God continuously knows and loves everything and everyone into existence.

“These divine ideas of all creatures are not ideas that God has by looking around in the universe and seeing what exists,” said Mark McIntosh, PhD, professor of Christian Spirituality. “Rather, each divine idea is in fact an aspect of God’s knowledge of Godself.”

McIntosh has been a professor at Loyola since 1993. Though he served from 2009 to 2014 as the Van Mildert Professor of Divinity at Durham University in the UK, and as a Canon of Durham Cathedral, McIntosh returned to Loyola in 2014 as the inaugural holder of Loyola’s endowed chair of Christian spirituality.

“Our care at Loyola for the principles of Ignatian pedagogy has always been inspiring to me,” said Mcintosh. “Especially in the case of this book, our intention is to elicit our students’ own deep sense of what they most profoundly desire to learn.”

McIntosh has been hard at work on his book, The Divine Ideas Tradition in Christian Mystical Theology, which was published to Oxford Scholarship Online in March 2021 and is now also in print. The book analyzes the divine ideas tradition and suggests how divine ideas may inform Christian theology today.

Additionally, McIntosh’s research and writing brings light to how divine ideas may be applied to current issues such as racial injustice, public health, and environmental crises.

“The book is a real success for a number of reasons,” says Dr. Bernard McGinn, the Naomi Shenstone Donnelley Professor Emeritus of Historical Theology at the University of Chicago. “One of the primary reasons being it is the most expansive and penetrating account of a central theological motif that has been rather neglected in recent times.”

McIntosh worked tenaciously on the creation of his book with the assistance of his doctoral students Jacob Torbeck and John Loving. McIntosh developed amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) as he completed his research for the book, making research materials increasingly inaccessible. Torbeck and Loving worked to ensure all research and resources could be utilized in McIntosh’s writing.

“Not being able to access all my research would have been a crushing experience, but my doctoral students overcame this and helped me to include the important voices and texts,” said McIntosh.

While the help was appreciated immensely by McIntosh, working with McIntosh seemed to be a gift in itself for his doctoral students.

“Dr. McIntosh is a serene and encouraging soul,” said Torbeck. “In previous years, when I served as his teaching assistant, his students were often moved by his sincerity and by his own willingness to be vulnerable to the texts they read together. Working with Mark is much the same experience.”

In addition to having the opportunity to work with their mentor, Torbeck and Loving experienced many enriching things throughout the development of the book. Some of the benefits were practical, of course, such as meeting colleagues, speaking with publishers, and learning how books go from concept to object.

However, Torbeck felt he gained more from the experience than just this.

“I think the most valuable benefits have been intangible: having my mind opened to ancient and new ways of making sense of the world, seeing someone model a great inner strength while also being very open about their great vulnerability and dependency, and letting those things come together for me when I've had to make sense of my own hardship over the past year,” said Torbeck.

For McIntosh, the most important takeaway in his book relates to the distortion and even denial of truth in our common life. A crucial underlying theme of his book is the divine goodness of truth itself, and that truth manifests itself in every being. Therefore, no being’s true identity and value should be denied or distorted, for that truth is held in God’s own life.

“The divine ideas crucially resourced the journey of each human person towards their best self, that is, their reality and truth as eternally known and loved by God,” said McIntosh.