Some Christian communities offer the Enneagram as a way to develop their spiritual life. Although I’m all for spiritual development, I’m rather skeptical when the program has a questionable history.
If you’re not familiar with the Enneagram, it originally emerged from the work of George Gurdjieff. As a whole, I find Gurdjieff’s teachings very confusing and poor derivatives of Eastern traditions. Gurdjieff claimed it was a Sufi symbol that represents the “law of three” and the “law of seven” and could explain the processes of any phenomenon in the cosmos. Sound esoteric? It is.
I won’t go into Gurdjieff’s specifics about how certain “food” gets processed in the body and how it corresponds to musical notes (Do, Re, Mi). I won’t go into the mathematical calculations that somehow produce “miraculous” connections because they are simply confusing. On surface, it has very little to do with how the Enneagram is used to develop the spiritual life.
Enneagram of Personality
What happened is that philosopher Oscar Ichazo and psychiatrist Claudio Naranjo developed the Enneagram into a theory of personality. Nine personality types emerged from their work, but those nine can have three subtypes based on their instincts. Sound confused? Yeah, me too.
Some psychologists developed Enneagram tests to determine what personality type you have. However, not every Enneagram personality test is the same. I took some tests on various “business” or “self-help” websites and found them to be problematic. Some lacked a “neutral” option, meaning that it only describes you in certain situations but not others. Others had somewhat double-barreled statements, which could be interpreted a few ways. Here are some examples:
"I enjoy searching for answers to difficult and complex questions, and I can spend hours pondering and making sense of the world.”
Personally, I like to look deeply into what appears on the surface to be simple. So for the first part of the statement is somewhat true. I can spend hours pondering, but I can’t say that I’m trying to find answers to those philosophical questions such as, “Why are we here?” So how would I respond to that statement?
"I have a clear sense of right or wrong, and integrity is very important to me.”
Integrity is important to me, but I also understand that “right” and “wrong” are contextual. What might be “right” in one situation is “wrong” in another.
And yet another from a different website:
"I take steps to ensure I don't feel sad or lonely.”
Is this a question of avoidance or self-care? The wording isn’t specific enough. For instance, if I’m feeling sad, I don’t try to push those feelings aside. I acknowledge that there will be circumstances that bring about suffering. To be honest, I don’t usually feel lonely anymore because I prefer to be alone.
Although one test told me that I scored a “five,” with 79% of my responses favoring that personality type, I also scored a 78% in the “one” category and a 63% in the “eight” category. It shows that these personality types might not be very distinct.
No Test Defines You
If you read Lee Ross’ The Person and the Situation, you’ll know that people often respond to their situation rather than be confined to a personality type.
As a whole, what actually keeps us trapped is when we define ourselves by these types. We sometimes use them as either an excuse for behavior or a reason why we shouldn't adopt a new one.
It doesn’t take into account how trauma or suffering might influence how we respond. If you ever said to someone, “Well, I’m an extrovert, so I need social interaction,” you know what I mean. Even extroverts need time alone for self-reflection.
We see this also in the “Love Languages” beliefs—that somehow taking a test tells you how you communicate love. No, it reveals your issues that need to be resolved. By the way, the original author of the Love Languages book doesn't have a degree in psychology.
Over time, the Enneagram somehow morphed into adding more characteristics, such as “ego fixations,” “holy ideas,” “fears,” and “vices.” Again, these don’t take into consideration how a situation might be different, or how a situation might change them.
It assumes that a personality type is dominated by a particular fear, which might also be situational. As a designated “five,” my fears are not “helplessness, incompetence.” Instead, mine could be more along the “three” personality type—I don’t want to feel that my life has no worth. This could be a factor more based on my age rather than a personality type.
The 'Christian' Enneagram
In the book, Enneagram—A Christian Perspective, authors Richard Rohr (whose work I love) and Andreas Ebert explain each personality type in detail. They describe historical and modern public figures as having these different personalities by offering accounts of the situations that define them by these traits. However, none of these people have taken the “personality test.”
If we can simply define ourselves by a description of these personality traits, then the “tests” are meaningless. Therefore, anyone who is “certified” as an Enneagram “coach” is just a charlatan.
What is most offensive to me is the use of the Enneagram as a means of “unlocking” your Christian potential. It quantifies who you are in God. You are more than a number.
The Rohr/Ebert book also strangely maps the personality of Jesus into the Enneagram and the “seven deadly sins” (based on Evagrius) into the nine personality types. The other two “deadly sins” didn’t come from Evagrius’ original work on the “thoughts,” so it seems we’re just trying to fit what we already know into this esoteric diagram.
What’s equally scary is using numerology to somehow explain how we behave. Some writings indicate “magic” numbers arriving mathematically, but none of this is in any Biblical teachings. Sure, Christians like “three” to indicate the Trinity, “five” to indicate the Pentateuch, and “twelve” for the tribes of Israel.
The Book of Revelation uses “seven” many times. How does that correspond with the Enneagram? It’s really not clear, or the proponents try to fit the Enneagram's numbers into some Christian teachings. It's not an exact match.
Pseudoscience and Contrived Spirituality
Even if the history of the Enneagram is sketch, the way it’s used today is equally sketch. It's not based in science, and it's not based on any spiritual teaching or tradition. It's just a neat way to appease those drawn to New Age and self-help methods while trying to affirm them as "Christian."
I don't believe the Enneagram to be sacrilege, but I think we can get ourselves too wrapped up in defining ourselves and others. Our self-absorption is contrary to Christian teaching--and many other spiritual teachings. I don't see this marketed by Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Taoist or Hindu traditions. Let me introduce you to the "Buddy Christ."
You don’t need an Enneagram coach to define you along unreliable and invalid parameters. You can look at some of these personality types and say you have a little bit of each.
If we believe that each snowflake ever created is unique, why can’t we believe each person created is unique? Sure, a snowflake might have similar attributes to another, but it doesn’t mean they follow the same path.
Eventually, what’s required is self-reflection. Rather than “define” yourself, simply look at the conflicts and suffering in your life. Those are much more telling about you than a personality test. Even if you managed to figure out “who you are” based on “your story,” the spiritual journey will require you to drop all of it.
In almost all spiritual traditions, we are called to shed the layers of our false self. Yes, this false self is our personality. As we move along the spiritual path, seeing the shining castle in the distance, we shed all conditioned patterns and respond most appropriately to the given moment.
We continue to cultivate virtues such as compassion, patience, and truth and continually orient our thoughts and behaviors according to those virtues.
No pseudo-scientific program based on an esoteric design can define you or carve out your spiritual journey. Those trying to convince you it’s the “key” are just selling you something.
Your journey is unique, based on the choices you make at each given moment. Choose freely, and choose wisely.