Who’s Afraid of the Enneagram?
Perhaps the hottest thing going in American evangelicalism is the enneagram (pron. “any-a-gram”). In the past five years, the personality typing system has exploded exponentially in popularity, as evidenced by church conferences, church retreats, popular podcasts, widely successful book sales, feature articles in magazines, and, anecdotally, many a dinner conversation with fellow evangelicals.
The enneagram is a personality system of nine types, including the reformer, helper, achiever, individualist, investigator, loyalist, enthusiast, challenger, and peacemaker. To my knowledge, the enneagram is unique among personality systems in that it doesn’t primarily seek to categorize your actions but to understand the unconscious motivations behind why we do what we do. The enneagram also makes a number of moral claims; (1) these motivations are survival mechanisms, masks that seek to hide our true selves, (2) each type has a specific vice and corresponding opportunity for virtue, and (3) each person vacillates between times of health and un-health, security and stress.
While I was not at all looking for a personality test—I think I’m inherently skeptical of such things—I’ve found the enneagram to be very useful, specifically in giving myself language for understanding my experience of being in the world. As a quintessential type one (reformer/perfectionist), the central motivation behind my actions is moral purity; I tend to filter actions of others through a black/white, right/wrong lens. I often feel a personal obligation to fix people and systems, though tragicomically I have very little power to do so. At my best, I can be dedicated to practical action and be a lover of truth. All too often, however, I hide behind my critical spirit, beating myself up for perceived mistakes and acting like a know-it-all to others. Though I may outwardly seem a peaceful man, my central vice is anger, as I perceive various imperfections in myself and others. My corresponding opportunities for virtue are to become patient with myself and use my black/white thinking for the good of others.
A recent article at the Reformed blog The Gospel Coalition, written by Baptist editor Joe Carter, is highly critical of the enneagram and its use by Christians. The piece hinges on a single claim, namely that an idea’s non-Christian origins should disqualify, or at least seriously temper, its adoption by Christians. Carter’s argument is provocative beyond mere enneagram debates, raising clarifying questions about the relationship between Christian and non-Christian ideas.
In Carter’s history of the enneagram, he attributes its origins to a diverse cadre of 20th century “occultists” (he never defines the term), starting with a Greek American who taught a Russian, who taught a Bolivian, who taught a Chilean. The Chilean occultist in this lineage, Claudio Naranjo, developed his insights while “high on mescaline” and under what Carter believes to have been demonic influence. Naranjo then taught the enneagram to Roman Catholics who then introduced the system to Protestants—juicy stuff indeed.
Every Christian proponent of the enneagram I’ve come across, while including the characters above and admitting that the historical waters are quite murky, considers the wisdom tool to be “ancient.” Ian Morgan Cron and Suzanne Stabile, in their book The Road Back to You, write that the enneagram could have roots in the Christian monk Evagrius, the desert mothers and fathers of the fourth century, the mystical Islamic tradition of Sufism, and Judaism. Christopher Heuertz in his book The Sacred Enneagram presents even more possibilities, including Homer’s The Odyssey and folk Buddhism. Professor of Counseling Chuck DeGroat believes that the enneagram is “deeply reliant on a Christian theological tradition” which includes “Evagrius, Cassian and Gregory.”
It is certainly true that the origins of the enneagram are hazy, and I don’t begin to have any new insight or historical argument to offer. Before I critique his argument, I appreciate Carter’s rejection of the chronologically-snobbish apologetic for the enneagram based on the platitude of the “ancient”: a platitude Cron, Stabile, and Huertz invariably appeal to. However, to get to the heart of the matter, let’s assume for the rest of this article that Carter is correct and the enneagram’s origins relate exclusively to 20th century occultists—should this fact be a full-stop road-block for Christian appropriation of the tool?
Dutch Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck, in an article published in 1909, convincingly answers in the negative. This is because God is gracious, both in creating the world (common grace) and in saving his people (special grace). As to the first, God has graciously given all of humanity divine gifts of “science, art, and philosophy.” Though the world is broken due to humanity’s sin, God has not neglected his creation to ruin, he actively dulls the effects of sin and retains the beauty of his original creation. In spite of sin and death, “there is no part of the world in which some spark of the divine glory does not glimmer.”
As to the second, the glimmer of the divine glory that still shines in non-Christians is to be recognized and utilized by recipients of God’s saving grace. For Bavinck, this conclusion is not a result of pragmatic considerations, but of the Kingship of Christ over all things. All glimmers of the Lord’s common grace in non-Christians find their fulfillment in Jesus. Beautiful art, scientific discoveries, and philosophical wisdom—because our God is the creator and is gracious—are to be used in service of Christ and his kingdom. In Bavinck’s beautiful words:
“The good philosophical thoughts and ethical precepts found scattered through the pagan world receive in Christ their unity and center. They stand for the desire which in Christ finds its satisfaction; they represent the question to which Christ gives the answer; they are the idea of which Christ furnishes the reality. The pagan world, especially in its philosophy, is a pedagogy unto Christ; Aristotle, like John the Baptist, is the forerunner of Christ. It behooves the Christians to enrich their temple with the vessels of the Egyptians and to adorn the crown of Christ, their king, with the pearls brought up from the sea of paganism.”
Just as people, broken and wayward we may be, can find their restoration in Christ, so can our ideas. Chuck DeGroat, in response to Carter’s argument, points out that scripture itself operates under this common grace assumption. He writes, “we can’t read Scripture without recognizing that major aspects of our primary stories, genres and forms, and even some of the Psalms we treasure were highly dependent on or lifted from their pagan cultures of origin,” citing both the flood narrative and Psalm 29 as examples. A modern example of this sort of work can be found in James K.A. Smith’s book Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism, in which he “attempts to make off with postmodern loot for the sake of the kingdom,” redirecting the work of (gasp!) Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault “for the glory of God and the furtherance of the kingdom” (22).
None of this reflection, of course, proves that the enneagram should adorn the crown of Christ. The Christian thinker must always carry a strainer, separating the pearls from the rest of the proverbial pagan sea. However, it does give Christians the confidence and freedom to gather all wisdom graciously given to all of humanity, provided it is laid at the throne of Christ who is King over all. Instead of concerning ourselves with an idea’s history, we should ask questions such as, does this idea cohere with the claims of scripture? What of the idea should we discard, and what should we refine? Is this idea useful for the Church? How does the person and work of Christ fulfill an idea’s latent hopes and longings?
Let’s grab all the gold of the Egyptians we can get our hands on.