Christians have traditionally named God as Trinity -- One substance, three persons. In the Creeds we name God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. As we have seen the masculine nature of this confession poses certain problems, especially if these names are taken literally -- so that God is literally a father and literally a son, with the Holy Spirit's nature a bit ambiguous. Some attempts at reimagining the Trinity have either left us with a modalistic vision (Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer) or perhaps more often with Tritheism (three gods). Perhaps because we struggle with naming God, the Trinity slips into irrelevancy for most Christians.
Elizabeth Johnson writes that "the triune symbol and the thought to which it gives rise have become unintelligible and religiously irrelevant on a vast scale, appearing as esoteric doctrine that one could well do without. This attitude is superbly represented in the way Friedrich Scheiermacher relegates the Trinity to the Closing pages of his magisterial The Christian Faith. His controlling motive is the conviction that the doctrine derived as it is from several more basic elements and becoming of little practical value, had little to do with the essence of his faith" (She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse, p. 192). It is of little practical value, or so it seems,
Perhaps the reason we struggle so much with the doctrine is that we approach it with a wooden literalness, that requires not only maleness, but the vision of an old man sitting on a throne with a younger version of himself sitting on another throne, while a dove flies back and forth between heaven and earth. Not only does this give rise to tritheism, but it seems to moderns as nonsensical. It is a benign metaphor that we can live without.
How then do we move forward if we are to reclaim the Trinity? Elizabeth Johnson suggests that Feminist theology points us in the right direction. It reminds us that "this symbol of holy mystery arises from the historical experience of salvation, and that it speaks about divine reality not literally but by way of analogy" (She Who Is, p. 197). Thus, the "Trinity is is a legitimate but secondary concept that synthesizes the concrete experience of salvation in a 'short formula.' It is a a theological construct that codifies the liberating God encountered in history. Without attentiveness to this rootedness in experience, speculation on the Trinity can degenerate into wild and empty conceptual acrobatics" (p. 198). The Trinity serves to name the encounter that we have with God in Christ that reclaims us for God.
Marcus Borg offers a similar reminder, noting that in both Islam and Judaism, which reject the Trinity, there is an acknowledgment that God's nature has both a transcendent and an immanent side:
The reason that Christianity moved from the twofold monotheism of Judaism to a threefold monotheism is because of the significance of Jesus for his followers in the first century and continuing in the centuries since then. He was for them the decisive revelation of God— and continues to be that for Christians. This is what makes somebody Christian: seeing the decisive, normative revelation, disclosure, epiphany of God in Jesus. The Trinity is thus a testimony, witness, tribute to the centrality of Jesus for Christians. [Borg, Marcus J. (2011-04-12). Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Meaning and Power-And How They Can Be Restored, (p. 213). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.]
Far from being irrelevant, the Trinity serves to link our encounter with Jesus through the Spirit with the Source of all things. (More to come).