Article ID: JAF1020AK | By: Anne Kennedy
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The Enneagram, a personality system configured around a circle of nine types, promises to help the spiritual seeker break free from sin, peel back layers of dysfunctional ways of thinking, and find inside him or herself the essential, God-given gem. The nine numbers are grouped by three — those of the head, those of the heart, and those of the gut. Each number is associated with a particular sin and takes on the characteristics of the numbers on either side, the wings. Ian Cron and Suzanne Stabile provide descriptions of each number in terms of health and unhealth, whereas Richard Rohr occasionally uses the word “redeemed” for a person living into his or her optimal self.
The origins of the Enneagram are believed by some to be ancient, invented by the Desert Father, Evagrius, along with the seven deadly sins. In fact, the Enneagram was first invoked in the 1800s by George Gurdjieff and, after him, by Rodney Collin who used it as an astrological device for explaining character and personality. Oscar Ichazo and New Age spiritualist Claudio Naranjo joined it to modern-day psychological practice and from there, through Richard Rohr, who borrows from Jungian conceptions of spirituality, it made its way into the Catholic church.
As the Enneagram sweeps through mainstream Evangelicalism, Christians might be curious about both its origins and its view of the human person. Claiming it arose in the ancient Christian past, Richard Rohr, Ian Cron, and others have, perhaps unwittingly, adopted a gnostic view of the person, one which requires special self-knowledge. The New Age Roots and the misuses of Scripture — particularly in regards to the theological definition of sin — should give those seeking personal transformation through use of the Enneagram pause.
“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.
Douglas Groothuis, in his helpful, comprehensive discussion of Gnosticism says this: “Gnosticism as a philosophy refers to a related body of teachings that stress the acquisition of ‘gnosis,’ or inner knowledge. The knowledge sought is not strictly intellectual, but mystical; not merely a detached knowledge of or about something, but a knowing by acquaintance or participation. This gnosis is the inner and esoteric mystical knowledge of ultimate reality. It discloses the spark of divinity within, thought to be obscured by ignorance, convention, and mere exoteric religiosity.”8
In this light, consider again the words uttered by Cron quoted above: “Buried in the deepest precincts of being I sense there’s a truer, more luminous expression of myself.”9 How do you know about this luminous and special self? Do you attain to this knowledge through the study of Scripture? Through the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit in the church? Do you find it by ever more fixing your eyes on Jesus? By the renewing of your mind through the study of Scripture, prayer, and repentance?
Not at all. This knowledge was revealed to George Gurdjieff, or maybe it was Claudio Naranjo — no one knows exactly — and is available to you only if you find out about it from Ian Cron, Richard Rohr, Suzanne Stabile, and the many Instagram and YouTube Influencers who will advise you on how to live and what to think and what to wear based on your number. It is secret knowledge. Once you get it, the world of yourself is unlocked for you in ways you could never have achieved on your own, with only the Bible and a decent preacher as your guide. This secret knowledge leads you to uncover your “luminous self,” to turn the dark side of your personality over, as if it were a priceless coin, so that you can empower and enact the golden, luminous side.
Indeed, you can’t be you without the dark side.10 The thing that makes you good is also the thing that makes you bad. The two must go together. Or rather, you must overcome the dark side and transform it into good, in some Jungian-divined exercise of personal self-enactment. Doing the work of the Enneagram will unlock the divine presence inside yourself. Though no one comes right out and says, “you will become god,” the idea is hinted at broadly by everyone I read.
WHAT ABOUT THE NEW AGE INFLUENCE?
Don and Joy Veinot and Marcia Montenegro detail the Enneagram’s sundry problems — the sketchy origins, the conflicts with Scripture, the dubious (at best) theology — in their book, Richard Rohr and the Enneagram Secret. Far from being an ancient tool used by Christian, Sufi, and Kabbalah mystics, the Enneagram, they document, likely came into modern existence through a philosophical trope invented in the 18oos by George Gurdjieff who believed he had hit on the explanation of the cosmos. “Gurdjieff believed all the secret laws of the universe could be seen in his diagram, and he used it to play around with mathematical formulas — what he called the ‘Law of Seven’ and the ‘Law of Three.’”11 From there, the system was further transformed by Rodney Collin who believed there were certain “Types of Humanity” based on the planets — Martial Types (5), Perceptions (6), Jovial Types (7), Saturnine Types (8), Food (9), Lunar Types (1), Mercurial Types (2), Air (3), Venusian Types (4).12
Collin claimed that once you’ve become firmly cognizant of your own planetary personality type you can improve yourself by trying to incorporate elements from the first two planetary types, as it were, downstream in the enneagram flow sequence from your own according to the formula 142857. So, for example, if you are a martial type (point 5 on Collin’s enneagram), you can improve yourself by incorporating features first from the Jovial type (point 7), and then second from the Lunar type, representing “cool instinctive certainty” (point 1).13
Oscar Ichazo and New Age spiritualist Claudio Naranjo eventually got ahold of the paradigm. Naranjo, in fact, claims that the Enneagram in its current state was delivered to him by a spirit through automatic writing.14 “Automatic writing,” the Veinots and Montenegro explain, “is a form of spirit contact in which one opens up to a channel of communication from a supernatural source by allowing the source to move the hand and/or dictate words (this can also be done with a typewriter or computer).”15
By joining this new spiritual revelation with modern-day psychological research, the Enneagram was transformed into an eminently palatable self-help-esque personality test. Not very many Christians want to be caught consulting a medium, let alone glancing at a horoscope in the grocery aisle. Personality tests, on the other hand, especially ones that deal with questions of “sin,” cannot possibly be a problem. Nevertheless, insist the Veinots and Montenegro, the Enneagram is inextricably entwined with its esoteric and occult origins, all of which rely on the power of suggestion, and the desire of a person to be confirmed in what he or she already believes. They highlight the experience of Fr. Mitchell Pacwa, whom they quote at length. Here is a snippet: “A number of times I was certain about having pegged my friends’ enneagram types, but when they looked at their charts, they chose something different. Sometimes I found myself forcing experiences into the categories of my enneagram or limiting personal criticism of those categories, even though people saw other faults in me.”16
WHAT ABOUT THE MISUSES OF SCRIPTURE?
Cron and Stabile in The Road Back to You don’t quote Scripture, preferring to rely heavily on Thomas Merton and Richard Rohr for their tether to Christian thought. It is a dubious tether, especially as Richard Rohr, who quotes Scripture here and there in pursuance of his own agenda, without any reference to contextual or hermeneutical integrity, makes free to assign Enneagram numbers to biblical figures and to use events in their ancient lives as evidence of the system’s reliability. There isn’t time to go into the full range of Rohr’s errors. I want to focus on what, for me, was the central problem with the way the Enneagram works, and why it is so alluring to Christians, and so problematic. The view of the self as a sinner is entirely wrong.
One Must Be Holy
Anger, sloth, lust, pride, avarice, envy, fear, gluttony, and deceit are certainly sins — sins that go right to the core of a person. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart,” said Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, taking what had been an externally focused sinful behavior (adultery) and drawing it straight out of the human heart.17 Dealing with the hatred, lust, pride, deceit — indeed, almost all the sins that are possible to commit — Jesus refused to provide any safe place, any nook or cranny to hide from His illuminating person. It is not enough to do good, one must be holy, be perfectly righteous in the sight of a perfectly holy God in order to be accepted. Which, of course, is impossible — that is the whole point.
By contrast, the Enneagram as taught by Cron, Stabile, and Rohr casts sin as imbalance or a lack of health in social and familial relationships. If you know your number and your inclination toward one kind of sin or another, and if you know the other types, your self-knowledge will enable you to correct yourself. Sin, in this way of thinking, is not particularly evil. It is not cast as an offense against a holy God, one that can be redressed by only the shedding of innocent blood. Rather, your duty to correct your personal failings is possible only with the secret — but purchasable — knowledge of the Enneagram.
Suzanne Stabile, in a brief clip online, tells a harrowing story of a man — an eight — who sorted himself out and reconciled himself to his son only days before that son died. “We just don’t know how much time we have,” she warns. “Not how much time we have to live, but how much time we have to be in relationship to other people who matter to us. And sometimes, if you don’t figure out how to get it right, you don’t get a chance to get it right.”18 This is a gospel plea, a religious call. Your inability to correct the imbalances and flaws in your character, or worse, your lack of desire to do so, could lead to unresolved and broken relationships all through your life. This is troubling and sad and is the result of humanity’s universal rejection of God, but it is not the biblical definition of sin.
In the Bible, it is not wicked to approach the world with fear-tinged caution. It is not sinful to enjoy a lusty, over-exuberant zest for life. It is not evil to live in your own head and fail to “properly” feel all your feelings. These kinds of “sins” point to an essentialist view of the person, a “diamond in the rough” that just needs a little help to become more beautiful. The Bible, on the other hand, casts the human sinner as beyond any human help. It is not a matter of imbalance, of mere dysfunction. It is that I, a sinner, have rejected God in my heart, in my mind, and in my gut. I have offended against His holy laws. I have actively done what I ought not to have done. I have not done what I ought to have done — not as delineated in the Enneagram types, but by the revealed law of God.
You Don’t Need the Enneagram, You Need Jesus
It is possible, I suppose, to find some uses for a system such as the Enneagram, to glean some insights about yourself and others that make life more pleasant and peaceful. Understanding the peculiarities of my children and husband and parents and friends is absolutely a help to me as I sort out my own issues and try not to get in other people’s way. Unfortunately, the best way for this to happen is for me to fix my eyes on Christ and discover that unless I deny myself, pick up my cross, and follow Him, I will not only go into the grave to die an eternal death — a death I deserve because of the stench of my offenses against God and my neighbor — I will also drag others along with me.
The mystery of the gospel, as opposed to the secret unlocked by the Enneagram, is that when I was an enemy of God, He came and took my place, and took the blame, and went to the cross Himself on my behalf, forgiving me of an immeasurable debt by taking it on to Himself. The work of the Christian is one of ongoing, painful, deep-seated dependence, of constantly being humbled by an alien and transformative love. There are no numbers for this, no circular spectrum to get to the heart of the matter. There is only the plodding obedience of conforming oneself — mind, heart, and gut — to Christ, not in order to find the divine spark within, but to see Christ face to face.
The Enneagram is too easy — and too cheap. All the health and balance in the world won’t restore your sinful soul and body to communion with the God who made you and who knows you even when you can’t possibly know yourself.
Anne Kennedy, MDiv, is the author of Nailed It: 365 Sarcastic Devotions for Angry and Worn-Out People (Kalos Press, 2016). She blogs about current events and theological trends at Preventing Grace on Patheos.com.
- Ian Morgan Cron and Suzanne Stabile, The Road Back to You: An Enneagram Journey of Self-Discovery, (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2016), 18.
- Cron and Stabile, The Road Back to You, 23.
- Cron and Stabile, Road Back to You, 10.
- There are many explanations about the Enneagram and how it works, but I found the most lucid to be Cron and Stabile’s in The Road Back to You.
- Cron and Stabile, Road Back to You, 228.
- Richard Rohr, “Loving the Whole Self,” Center for Action and Contemplation, April 25, 2016, https://cac.org/loving-whole-self-2016-04-25/.
- Cron and Stabile, Road Back to You, 63.
- Douglas Groothuis, “Gnosticism and the Gnostic Jesus,” Christian Research Journal, vol. 13, no. 02 (1990), CRI, April 21, 2009, https://www.equip.org/articles/gnosticism-and-the-gnostic-jesus/.
- Cron and Stabile, Road Back to You, 23.
- For a fascinating and useful discussion of the idea of the dark or “shadow” side of the person being indispensable, an idea that Richard Rohr unquestioning leans on, see J. Budziszewski, “C.G. Jung’s War on the Christian Faith,” Christian Research Journal, vol. 21, no. 3.
- Don Veinot, Joy Veinot, and Marcia Montenegro, Richard Rohr and the Enneagram Secret (Wonder Lake: MCOI Publishing LLC, 2020), 60.
- Veinot, Veinot, and Montenegro, Richard Rohr and the Enneagram Secret, 63.
- Veinot, Veinot, and Montenegro, Richard Rohr and the Enneagram Secret, 63.
- See “The Origin of the Enneagram — Claudio Naranjo Speaks — June 2010,” YouTube, June 18, 2010, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wlO3KJWnNd8.
- Veinot, Veinot, and Montenegro, Richard Rohr and the Enneagram Secret, 65.
- Veinot, Veinot, and Montenegro, Richard Rohr and the Enneagram Secret, 66. See also the excellent article, Mitchell Pacwa, S.J., “Tell Me Who I Am, O Enneagram,” Christian Research Journal, Fall, 1991, CRI, https://www.equip.org/article/tell-me-who-i-am-o-enneagram/.
- Matthew 5:27–28, English Standard Version.
- Suzanne Stabile, excerpt from “The Enneagram Journey,” October 30, 2019, https://www.equip.org/articles/gnosticism-and-the-gnostic-jesus/.