I just noticed this hilarious new astrology system that’s showed up in Christianity: the Sacred Enneagram, so let’s make today about that! Everyone, say hi to the Christian astrology fad that’s just pinged Christian news sites’ radar (finally)!
What Is the Enneagram?
Religion News Service brings us an interview with a Christian, Christopher Heuertz, who recently wrote a book called The Sacred Enneagram, which is the newest personality-type questionnaire trend that’s hit Christianity. Surprisingly, it’s even getting noised about in some evangelical circles, in part because–the author thinks–evangelicals are kinda getting bored with chewing the same old soup of their version of Biblical literalism.1 According to a Catholic site, some 60% of Enneagram enthusiasts identify as Christian, with many of those being Catholic–but it seems like pretty much all flavors of Christians are getting into this. It’s been around for a while; here’s a 2002 Christianity Today post talking about it in the context of “spiritual formation,” but it seems like it’s coming to the fore recently thanks to that new book out about it.
It’s not a regular old personality-inventory system, however, the author is careful to tell us. It’s a Jesus-flavored one! This one’s “sacred!” Mr. Heuertz thinks that it was used by the Ancient Egyptians 6,000 years ago and by the ancient Koreans 4,000 years ago. Even Folk Buddhism (whatever he means by that term) “may have [a] version of the Enneagram.” He also thinks that the earliest church fathers and desert ascetics in Christianity were into the Enneagram, and that the Sufis were. Seriously. That’s pretty much everyone except the Jews, in terms of mystic traditions that get Americans in particular totally googly-eyed.
So this Enneagram thing is totally not like anything else. It just happens to look like the billion other personality-type systems that we’ve got littering our modern landscape, and it acts like all those other systems with its tidy little personality types and woo-ish language, and it sure suffers the same problems those other systems suffer, but it’s ancient, y’all, don’t forget, and just somehow nobody really talked about it until now, and plus it’s sacred so that automagically makes it doubleplusgood.
And I’ve noticed that a lot of Christian leaders are vocally doubleplus not thrilled with this thing at all. That Catholic site calls it “a dangerous practice” while noting that lots of retreats and various programs offer courses in it; I saw other evangelical leaders condemn it wholeheartedly as well.
But the “Low Christians” in the pews across the length and breadth of Christianity neither notice nor care that their upper-level leaders almost unanimously denounce it.
(Really, those leaders’ disapproval may itself be one of the few things they just about all agree on. And their followers’ total lack of caring about that disapproval may in turn be one of the few cultural practices that unite almost all flavors of Christianity.)
So… What the Heck Is It?
The Sacred Enneagram is a bog-standard personality type thing with a grid of nine types with mystical names; its name, “Enneagram,” comes from the words for “nine” and “something written/drawn” in Greek. Oh, and speaking of which, the diagrams in this thing are just amazing in their complexity and occultism. Seriously, religious diagrams make me as giddy as as the Skeksis Ornamentalist SkekEkt at his feast table, and these are particularly, deliciously ostentatious examples of the breed. They are damned near impermeable at times.
You’re looking for the handsome fellow about 42 seconds into this clip, the one with the gold fingertip things who realllllllly likes him some Roast Nebrie. Also BTW, we’ll be coming back to this movie sometime very soon because there is AMAZING news on that front.
As Christopher Heuertz puts it, the Enneagram’s central conceit is the notion that everyone has these “coping addictions” that we learn in childhood and carry into adulthood, and people develop one of these nine general personality types as a result of those addictions.
Ya know, except for one part of it, that’s not the very worst way I’ve ever heard of thinking about our various maladaptive coping behaviors. That idea sounds like that deeper magic I talk about sometimes that undergirds a lot of religious come-ons and threats and makes them so devastatingly effective. People do learn, very early, maybe before they can even talk, about the relative value of men and women with respect to each other, about the fairness of the world (and how to react to its unfairness), about the value of violence, how much agency we have about what parts of our lives, about what frustration is and how to handle it, about beauty standards and who enforces them and how, about the power of criticism, and all sorts of other things.
Ideally, we learn stuff that teaches us well how to be functional adults who treat ourselves and others with compassion, honesty, civility, and respect, and how to manage and regulate ourselves, our needs, and our resources in effective and constructive ways.
But not all of us are so lucky. Sometimes, we are too busy learning how to survive childhood to learn that other stuff.
It seems to me that a lot of people who grow up in dysfunctional families or social groups end up taking their coping mechanisms from those difficult childhoods into their later years. The coping mechanisms that helped us survive with our bodies and dignity at-least-somewhat intact do not serve us as well in adult society as they did in the constricted home environment we faced as children. But without doing a lot of challenging emotional work, we may die with that programming still messing us up because a bad teaching can be damned near impossible to even identify, much less correct.
If you’ve heard WereBear skillfully leading discussions in the comments about honor culture, that’s sorta the same thing: young men in really dysfunctional cultures (like the Deep South) get taught at a very early age about a form of masculinity that just doesn’t work anymore, but which they cling to so stubbornly that they will literally murder their partners before asking for help dealing with their deep-seated insecurities and issues. People are drawn to religions or groups that fit with their deepest programming, and then cloak that early programming with the teachings of their religion or group. Thus, even when they’ve left the religion, their programming often remains wholly intact and awaiting its next window-dressing label–unless that difficult work is done to figure out what to keep and what to toss and then to rise above our pasts.
That said, I don’t really like the “addiction” terminology that Mr. Heuertz seems really attached to. That’s a pathologizing of something that pretty much everyone does to some extent–and, um, not all of that early programming is bad at all (and some of it’s fine to an extent, just not when taken to extremes). Moreover, his conceptualization of “coping addictions” doesn’t seem to have the same elements as a real live addiction (like, ya know, anything on this here list), and I’m very suspicious of Christians who rush to pathologize normal human-being needs and behaviors, as they love doing with stuff like masturbation. I’m willing to concede that there may be a lot of things that are addictive besides the classic stuff like heroin and EverQuest, but this seems like a bridge too far.
As for its claims of effectiveness and it ties to history, I’d really want to see something better than “the ancient Sufis totally were into this, y’all” before signing off on it.
And gang, those are just my first set of big objections to the Enneagram!
Some Other Ever-So-Slight Problems With This Idea.
Though Christian sites are quick to note Christian-ish objections to the Enneagram, I can see some bigger secular problems with it than “this magic system clashes with our magic system.” Before you can even get to that particular problem, you first must navigate a whole battery of much bigger–and more reality-based–problems.
First, it’s not nearly as old as the author of The Sacred Enneagram likes to think it is. One Christian site pinpoints its first outlines to Sufi writings from the 14th century CE since it hinges upon the decimal point, which wasn’t really invented till then. I’ll take their word for that part, but it’s easy enough to notice that for all its adherents’ claims, no, actually, one doesn’t encounter a lot of Ancient Egyptian wall inscriptions talking up which Enneagram Type a Pharaoh is. If you’re not partial to it being even that “young,” there sure seem like a lot of links between the Enneagram’s ideas and, um, as that link points out, super-occult practices like Madame Blavatsky-style theosophy and spiritualism of the (relatively) modern day. Either way or one besides even, the Enneagram’s pushers are grabbing for the false authority of antiquity, and that ought to raise our eyebrows right there. There’s a reason why they’re doing that, and chances are that it’s because they wouldn’t be able to gain that authority in a more reputable, evidence-based way.
Most of us ex-Christians will be scratching our heads right about now wondering where this notion is actually found in the Bible, for that matter. (Hilariously, the author totally evades the question in that Gazette link I gave earlier when he’s flat-out asked what he’d say to Christians who think “this is a non-Christian or even pagan system that should not be trusted.” Really! Totally evades it! And the writer there just lets him! If I sound like I’m just cackling over here, I am. I totally am. I own it. As Christian scams go, this one might be one of the most obvious and hilarious that has come down the pike in ages, and I needed the laugh after last week. This whole story is just pure undistilled AWESOME as far as I’m concerned.)
Second, obviously, there is no evidence whatsoever that it is what it claims or that it confers the benefits claimed upon adherents. As far as I can tell, there is not one single psychological study done regarding the legitimacy of its “nine paths to God” notion nor upon its claim to bring “healing and wholeness” to those who try to put into effect its recommendations. In fact, the actual serious work that’s been done to study any of these personality-inventory things contradicts their claims of both effective diagnosis and reliable suggestions. Of course, that doesn’t stop various Christian groups from offering workshops and courses on it to those with the money to pay for this metaphysical snake oil. Christians are already used to buying into scams with no evidence behind them–this is simply one more emptying their wallets and inflating their egos.
Third, it shares quite a few flaws with other personality-type systems like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI): it’s just one step sideways removed from astrology in how general and arbitrary it is, how it oversimplifies people’s personalities, and how it directs people to take actions that may or may not actually help them overcome their problems. And if you take another step sideways, and then some diagonally, you’re square dancing, and that’s rarely a good sign in psychology.
Fourth, Mr. Heuertz thinks that he’s describing not personality types at all, but different “paths to God.” Yes. So we’re all trying to get to his god, and we’ve all got our wacky little ways of doing it. Some of us look for harmony in the group, some seek loyalty to individuals, some achieve “unfettered autonomy,” some show off “curated successes,” etc. Dear Atheists: Sorry, but you’re all trying to figure out a path to reach this guy’s god except you don’t realize it. How arrogant and presumptuous is that? Maybe he needs to establish some credible reason to think his god even exists, and then he can try to dictate the lived realities of millions of people he’s never even met.
Last, but far from last-last, just last on this quick list, is that Christopher Heuertz is basically making suggestions here that sound a lot better on paper than they do in reality. They’re fad diets for our
spirits egos, nothing more. In a year or two after getting hooked on this notion, have its adherents changed or grown at all? Or, in that time, have they simply retreated into their “type” as an excuse for their shortcomings, as many MBTI people do, as many astrology fans do, as the wretched adherents of the “Men Are From Mars” bullshit ideology do, from thence deciding that they’ll never be able to change and everyone else just needs to learn to put up with them acting out the failed lessons they learned in childhood?
Nobody Loves You Like You Do.
This personality identification system seems a lot less like self-improvement and a lot more like a feed into people’s narcissism. “What am I?” and “What am I really like?” can be fascinating questions, fueling the craze for social-media quizzes like the ones that made Buzzfeed famous (and rightly reviled). We’re fascinated with ourselves, when you get down to it, and these quizzes and type setups give us an excuse to enjoy a little narcissistic fun for the best cause of all: our own aggrandizement. “Jesus” sure doesn’t make Christians any different!
And it doesn’t take much to set us off on one of these little mental stay-cations. If you’ve ever heard of the Forer Effect (which drives the profitability of astrology and “mediums” alike), you’ve already figured out what the problem is with all of these quizzes and personality inventories. People think that they’re receiving advice or insights tailored to their particular personality types, and they’re encouraged to think of the people in their lives in the same way, thus categorizing people at second-hand and acting and reacting to them accordingly. But the problem is that people aren’t that easily categorized, and a lot of the information people receive from these tests is based on how exactly they took the “tests” that go with them. It’s all subjective, based on our distorted and possibly totally incorrect perceptions of ourselves and others (perceptions which change rapidly according to our moods and moment-to-moment shifts in circumstances), and generally speaking it’s all going to be exceptionally flattering because we don’t tend to pay money to people who aren’t flattering us. (Church-based abuse runs along very different channels, as you might guess–coercion introduces whole different elements to that equation than if some bored upper-middle-class Lutherans pay a thousand bucks each to go on a retreat to figure out what personality type they are.)
The author of this new book thinks that his system is totally different from all other personality-type systems (like the enduringly popular MBTI) because his tells people “what we can become,” not just “what type of person we are.” Moreover, he thinks his is sacred while the others aren’t because “as a map of the soul it’s a compassionate sketch of possibilities.” And he doesn’t seem aware that pretty much all of these other personality test/inventory things do exactly the same thing but with different wording. And they all have DIAGRAMS.
Basically, The Sacred Enneagram paints a picture of humans that is “beautifully flawed,” according to its author–a classic deepity if there ever was one.
That plus a couple bucks will get you a coffee at McDonald’s, and the coffee will actually have at least a small but verified, real-world, measurable effect on you, unlike the metaphysical woo.
We’re going to have to talk about The Dark Crystal soon. Have to have to have to. And we’ve also got an encounter with a guy called FALCON coming up and a bunch of other stuff. Busy week! See you Thursday!
1 Let’s face it: evangelicals certainly might be getting bored with evangelicalism’s ideas, because, well, it is boring. There’s literally nothing new under that blackened sun. There are only new ways of packaging that soup–usually a more-extreme version of whatever went before, which evangelicals can be counted upon to welcome as a totally new and exciting idea.