This went up over at the Christian Research Institute last week, but I’m putting it here in case you missed it.
“May you realize that the shape of your soul is unique, that you have a special destiny here, that behind the façade of your life there is something beautiful and eternal happening. May you learn to see your self with the same delight, pride, and expectation with which God sees you in every moment,” writes Ian Cron in the opening chapter of The Road Back to You, re-counting the prayer his counselor and mentor prayed over him as he began his own Enneagram journey of healing and self-knowledge.1 When Cron’s professional life was on the brink, having discovered that he was the wrong sort of person for the job he was currently doing, he needed some way of making sense of it all. He had known about the Enneagram, of course, but it took an existential crisis, and a stumbling upon the right kind of guide to show him what was wrong, to bring his attention to its significance.
That guide helped him look inward, giving him the emotional and spiritual tools he lacked. The greatest of which, it turns out, was discovering his very self, the essential truth of his own character and nature in relationship to those of others, and even, it must be admitted, to God. “Buried in the deepest precincts of being I sense there’s a truer, more luminous expression of myself, and that as long as I remain estranged from it I will never feel fully alive or whole.”2 It is in this way, if you were to search out the usefulness of the Enneagram as a way of better understanding yourself, that your journey would eventually lead you — if you are prepared to believe the hype.
By contrast, I first encountered the Enneagram several years ago when I was trying to waste time on the internet, trying to avoid some dreaded task. “A new personality test!” a friend announced on Facebook or somewhere. “Find out what number you are!” I dutifully took the five-minute quiz and signed up for the newsletter, forgetting, then, ever to look in my spam to read the letter, or what number I am. Whenever it came up in conversation I apologized for not caring, and moved on. But now the matter presses on my attention because it turns out that the Enneagram is not just a personality test, it is a “spiritual” exercise, with spiritual implications, and it is inside mainstream Evangelicalism.
WHAT IS THE ENNEAGRAM?
The Enneagram is a way of sorting personality types based on the inherent flaw or lack — sometimes described as a sin — inherent inside of the person. There are nine types, each related to the seven deadly sins (supposedly discovered by the Desert Father, Evagrius) with the addition of two.3 The nine types are grouped into three categories — those of the heart, those of the mind, and those of the gut. The nine are configured around a circle, so that a person will find him or herself on some point on a spherical spectrum and closely influenced, or pulled by the inclinations on either side, and stretching out across the circle toward the other numbers. Eight, Nine, and One, the head numbers, find their besetting sins — lust, sloth, and anger — to be centered in their desire for control. They are “of the mind.” Two, Three, and Four are “heart” numbers. Their sins are pride, deceit, and envy, all related to the human attempt to get love by managing, or at least fretting about the way other people perceive them. Five, Six, and Seven are “of the gut” and find their sins to be avarice, fear, and gluttony. Each number pulls toward the ones on either side (the wings) and, depending on how functional or “healthy” the person is, will take on characteristics from those opposite on the circle.4
The Enneagram is not simply a means to discover one’s own faults and overcome them. On the contrary, the quest is divinely ordained. “Every number on the Enneagram,” writes Cron, “teaches us something about the nature and character of the God who made us. Inside each number is a hidden gift that reveals something about God’s heart. So when you are tempted to prosecute yourself for the flaws in your own character, remember that each type is at its core a signpost pointing us to travel toward and embrace an aspect of God’s character that we need.”5
“Our deepest sin and our greatest gift are two sides of the same coin,” explains Richard Rohr, distilling his voluminous speaking and writing down into bite-sized pieces on a website called The Center for Action and Contemplation.
We spend the first part of our life creating our self-image and our ego by building on what we do well. That’s a necessary stage. By our twenties, our personality type is well-established because it works for us in some strange way. But in the middle of our life we may begin to see the other side of the coin, the dark side of our gift. When we are excessively fixated on our supposed gift it becomes a sin. Maintaining this self-image, this false self, becomes more important than anything else. This is where the Enneagram can help us to recognize this game for what it is and to disarm ourselves — to abandon the defense of the false self that we have created. We are letting go of what only seems good and discovering what in us is really good. We are returning to the Divine Presence in and around us. This leaving the garden and returning to the garden happens many, many times in a healthy life. And each time is both a self-revelation and a divine-revelation.6
In other words, there is some divine exigency to the project of the Enneagram. If you don’t find out about yourself, you run the risk of thwarting God’s work. You may not be able to understand “the gospel,” and you will live an unrealized, paltry existence — dysfunctional, unhealthy, sinful, and probably miserable. Do you really want that for yourself? Or for the world? Of course you don’t.
SIN AND SELF-DISCOVERY
In the process of reading about the Enneagram, and watching Richard Rohr in a loop on YouTube, I paused every few days to take another test. Depending on how I felt at any given moment, I came out as a nine or a one, though once I came up as a four — that must have been the day I was particularly fed up with the world. The questions at the beginning of each chapter in The Road Back to You are clear, and, in some cases, trenchant. Questions such as, “I’ll do anything to avoid conflict,” and “I am often quietly stubborn when people put demands on me,” are pretty uncomfortable to encounter.7 Fortunately, Cron is a funny and engaging writer. By the time I was invited to give my rating on the Kindle edition for Goodreads, I had numbered all of my close family and friends. My husband is an eight. One of my children is a two. Another one is a seven — it would take too long to list them all. Cron’s descriptions of each type are apt, insightful, and occasionally disquieting. It was impossible for me to come away thinking the whole thing is bunk. Someone must be on to something, I concluded, and took just one more test to be sure, indexing my peculiar propensity to certain kinds of sin as instructed.
Cron, Stabile, Rohr, and the many adherents of the Enneagram insist that the system is so useful because the whole point is that there is something wrong with you — something essential, something it would be unhealthy to avoid. The twos, for example, come into the world believing they do not really deserve to be loved. Every action they take for the care of others does not flow out of a real desire to love and care for those others, but from a deeply embedded belief that the world is transactional, that if you want people to love you, you have to make them do it by catching them in a web of debt. Cron’s single chapter on the twos “unlocked” a very unhappy year of adolescence for me when I was “saved” by what I presume must have been a two, someone for whom saving others was more important than pausing to consider if those others needed the sort of rescue they had to offer.
And, of course, I was invited to consider my own cloying desire to avoid conflict at all cost, which is a miserable proposition if you are married to someone who believes that offense is the best defense. If you want to love an eight, suggests Cron, be willing to fight and try to win.
WHAT ABOUT GNOSTICISM?
Nevertheless, as I read and tested myself (and secretly others), I found myself uneasy about the conception of the person required for the Enneagram to make sense. Up to a point, this version of the self appears on the surface to be constructed along Christian philosophical lines. The person is valuable. Self-Knowledge is necessary for salvation, or at least climbing out of the inevitable troubles of life. The person is created by God for some good reason. There is no way to fully know the self without acknowledging the work and character of God. Moreover, the human person is sinful. Indeed, the sin of the person is so embedded inside the mind and heart that the very character and shape of a personality is dependent on that sinful inclination. Richard Rohr even occasionally uses the words “original sin” to talk about the characteristics of each Enneagram type. Nevertheless, the self as described by the Enneagram is not Christian, it is Gnostic…read the rest here!