Do we really understand “trinity”?

Over the weekend, I wrote a short paper on the doctrine of the holy Trinity for my systematic theology course. As I studied the assigned reading, what came to mind was a notable comment I had read previously by Roman Catholic theologian Karl Rahner (from his book, The Trinity):

Should the doctrine of the Trinity have to be dropped as false, the major part of religious literature could well remain virtually unchanged.

Let me translate: he is saying that in practice, the doctrine has not been useful. And if we stopped employing the doctrine, much of Western Christianity would not bat an eye, and our theology would not suffer (the Eastern Orthodox churches would be a different story altogether). Those are very strong words from Rahner. Is he correct? Furthermore, he continues,

[The doctrine’s] function … is not clearly perceived. It is as though this mystery has been revealed for its own sake, and that even after it has been made known to us, it remains, as a reality, locked up within itself. We make statements about it, but as a reality it has nothing to do with us at all.

Or simply, people just don’t “get” trinity. They don’t understand it — and his point is that this is not the fault of ordinary Christians. Rather, the fault here lies with the Church and the lack of clarity about the doctrine in the West. Without clarity about the subject, our teachers can’t teach the subject, and our theologians can’t think clearly about the subject.

So again I ask, is Rahner correct? Do we just not get “trinity”? Is it at best something we in the West talk about out of obligation (such as when we make the Sign of the Cross), and at worst little more than a source of confusion?

Or perhaps most importantly: is this doctrine understood in the pews?

 


Further reading from Akenside Press:

(1) the data sheet, “The Holy Trinity” (1-pg PDF).
(2) the pamphlet, “The First Four General Councils and the Development of the Dogma of the Incarnation” (8-pg PDF).