“I have some concerns about the Enneagram.”
People who like the Enneagram: “That means you don’t understand the Enneagram.”
So, this is a followup to my previous post, “Enneagram? Meh.”
I want to start with a response email whose subject line was “Enneagram? Mehgusta.” This delightfully snarky wordplay-as-riposte indicates that it was written by my people. But here’s an excerpt that confirms my deep affection for its author:
I thought the Enneagram emphasized something powerful—inner work, self reflection, awareness of our own barriers, patterns and gifts—in order to break free from them. Breaking free from self-hate, shame, unhealthy patterns of operating, thinking, feeling or seeing the world/ourselves/each other/God. (And through this honest process, simultaneously becoming increasingly more compassionate toward another person’s shit, thereby creating a ripple of powerful love, of Kingdom). . . .
But then your comment about the self-help culture pops into my head and I wonder if I’ve leaned too hard in that direction with all this tuning into self stuff….
It’s almost my own spiritual journey’s reaction to what seemed like a faith that encouraged self-hate, self deprecation, animosity with self, not trusting ourselves (or maybe I brought my own shit into my perceptions of faith, God, Christianity, idk). . . .
And then where you wrote, “a journey of dying to self” and looking for our true self outside ourselves, it did make me question what I’m really doing with the Enneagram and all these other practices I consider to be spiritual and essential, good and true. But at the same time my instinct is to push back on your words because . . . maybe somewhere beneath all my skewed humanity is a more whole and true self waiting to be nurtured, protected, guided and uncovered. Maybe we were all born with that in us, but to be human is to interact with less than ideal influences and situations, and so our precious/whole nature gets off balance along the way. And if spirit lives in all of us, wouldn’t that be an essential part of a process to freedom/living full life as intended/finding our true self?
Yeah, we’re all dealing with our shit, and each other’s. The Enneagram’s role as a shovel is not trivial. There was more to this email, and it was all worth hearing.
I need to be transparent: when I read this (among various other reactions), I thought, What am I doing? Why am I pushing back on something that people find so helpful? Is this just nitpicking? Is this a compulsion to intellectually virtue signal? Is it a defense mechanism?
The reader should understand, however, that such questions are not an epiphany for me; they are my everyday inner monologue. Not only is self-critique my jam (but no, I’m not a 1), self-awareness has been one of my primary values since I can remember. I need awareness of what I’m doing, why I’m doing it, how others are reacting to it, and what it all means. I revel in it, even when the outcome is unflattering. Tools that serve this end are playthings for me. Pursuit of self-awareness is not navel-gazing or selfishness. Unless it is—I don’t know. I only know it’s the air I breath. So I refuse to be misunderstood on this point: my problem with self-help culture is not that attention paid to the self is a problem. Hold on, though; I’ll get to the problem later.
No, I don’t believe I am quibbling or neurotically ducking for cover. I savor a good fight (and no, I’m not an 8), but I’m not reflexively raging against the Enneagram machine. I have a real concern—though it’s up to me to explain it far more clearly, which is what this post is about.
I have to reiterate that I am not condemning the Enneagram. I continue to grapple with the fact that its advocates claim it works. And words like my friend’s quoted above matter a great deal to me. God forbid I encourage self-hate or discourage transformation. Catalysts of real growth are rare and precious, and I’m all for “doing our work” with the tools at our disposal. Shovel while ye may!
But here’s the thing: the testimony of those who have found the Enneagram to be very useful, even transformative, should not be the end of the conversation. The authors I will deal with below seem to say (as I will demonstrate) that proven usefulness of the tool is a sufficient excuse for its bluntness, but it is not (and I will also show that they know it). This objection is not because I reject pragmatism. To the contrary, I am a pragmatist in the proper sense of the word. My problem is precisely what the theological entailments of the Enneagram are doing. So, caveat lector: If you think theology is beside the point—if, like Suzanne Stabile, you would say, “I’m not too interested in dogma and doctrine. It just gets me in trouble, and I don’t know, I don’t think Jesus cares much”1—then you might as well tune out now. Because theological entailments do things in the world. There is no such thing as mere theory (that is one of modernity’s little illusions). Exactly because Jesus cares about what becomes of us, he cares about dogma and doctrine. Your Enneagram number may explain your caring less, but it doesn’t change what our theology actually does to us.
In other words, my contribution here is limited. I’m no expert in the pastoral usefulness of the typology, and I’m not about to say what it is or isn’t doing for your personality issues. All I can offer is a perspective on what else the very specific claims of books about the Enneagram entail—and what else they are doing that you may not be aware of.
A bit on what theology does and why it matters regardless of whether you care
I’m going to take a page out of a school of theology called Postliberal. The name doesn’t really matter at this point; I just need to acknowledge whose ideas I’m adapting. One of the major catalysts of Postliberalism was George Lindbeck’s 1984 book The Nature of Doctrine. His argument is complicated, and not all of it is relevant to what I’m saying here, but he uses some very understandable and interesting comparisons and examples that seem useful for this discussion.
My wife tells me this section is boring, but it’s pivotal for what I’m trying to say, so let’s start with an example before getting to the theory.
Have you ever thought about what it means to kill someone in the name of Jesus?
What is happening when someone combines a theological claim with an action that seems to be contradictory? We all think and act inconsistently, which can be explained in terms of hypocrisy or weakness or ignorance. But what about a theological claim that is used sincerely as a justification for an apparently incompatible action? What is happening in such cases?
Lindbeck’s classic example:
For a Christian, “God is Three and One,” or “Christ is Lord” are true only as parts of a total pattern of speaking, thinking, feeling, and acting. They are false when their use in any given instance is inconsistent with what the pattern as a whole affirms of God’s being and will. The crusader’s battle cry “Christus est Dominus [Christ is Lord],” for example, is false when used to authorize cleaving the skull of the infidel (even though the same words in other contexts may be a true utterance). When thus employed, it contradicts the Christian understanding of Lordship as embodying, for example, suffering servanthood.2
Now for theory. Lindbeck makes two claims that are especially relevant:
Claim 1: Religions function like languages, and doctrines function like grammar.
The religious person (or “spiritual” person, if you like) who says, “I don’t really care about doctrines,” is assuming that a doctrine doesn’t do anything except express an isolated truth or understanding. Since truth claims and understandings have become obviously fragile and fallible in postmodernity, and since I can’t presently know whether I am ultimately right or wrong about any given doctrine, therefore doctrine doesn’t affect my spirituality or religious practice. Doctrine is dispensable.
By contrast, Lindbeck suggests that the major issue with doctrine is not whether you hold a true one but how it functions to regulate your religion. As a grammar is the logic that allows you to make sensible statements in a language, so a doctrine makes sense of a religious action. Without it, the same action makes a different sense, regardless of your claim to be a member of that religion.
Claim 2: The doctrine (grammar) of a religion (language) integrates the use of its content (lexicon) in a more or less coherent system.
If doctrines are isolated truth claims, then being right or wrong about one thing has little or nothing to do with being right or wrong about another. In other words, when your primary idea of doctrine is the expression of fallible truth or understanding, you may come to a different understanding of one thing, but that does’t really affect your understanding or practice of another. Any given doctrine is dispensable.
By contrast, if a religion or spirituality is regulated by doctrines that make sense of it as a whole, changes in doctrine make a different sense of the whole system. On the one hand, this means that changes within the system cause minimal disruption, because they are still regulated by the same doctrine. On the other hand, changes in doctrine affect the whole system and the meaning of its every part.
Back to the crusader. There are two religious/spiritual performances in view: the cry “Christ is Lord” and the action of cleaving the infidel’s skull.
Lindbeck’s point is that within the system governed by “the Christian understanding of lordship” (doctrine), this performance indicates that “Christ is Lord” is not true—in view of cleaving the infidel’s skull, the Christ of Christian doctrine is patently not this crusader’s Lord.
From a different angle, in view of cleaving the infidel’s skull, Christian doctrine is clearly not regulating the crusader’s spirituality, despite the cry “Christ is Lord.” These words are a Christian idiom, borrowed from the lexicon of Christianity, used in a way that breaks the grammatical rules of Christian religion/spirituality. The result is a different language, in which the idiom “Christ is Lord” means and does something different. Doctrine is indispensable, because some grammar is inevitably making sense of our religious performances.
Furthermore, the crusader’s two performances are mutually interpreting, meaning each indicates what the other means—especially for the infidel!
One of the amazing things about religious/spiritual performances is that they can serve double duty as compressed doctrines. Creedal slogans (such as “Christ is Lord”) are the supreme examples of this phenomenon. For example, “Christ is Lord” may be a baptismal confession, an act of worship, a political statement, a formal truth claim, or an interpretation of actions. But compression makes a doctrine vulnerable to misunderstanding by others in the absence of fuller explanation, and co-performances necessarily serve as interpretive clues.
So, one problem is that the crusader is playing by the wrong set of rules—like speaking Latin words using Hebrew grammar. Another problem is that he is yelling (and swinging a sword) at someone who speaks another language altogether. From the infidel’s perspective, the sequence of noises “Christus est Dominus” means nothing more than that sword swing.
These are some of the basic dynamics that I take to be at work in spiritual/religious performances, including those that make use of the Enneagram. Now I need to be more specific about the idiom and claims being made by Enneagram experts in order to work toward an account of what grammar is at work.
The claims of Christian Enneagram authors and their theological entailments
I’ll begin with the claims of usefulness that I mentioned earlier. Ian Morgan Cron and Suzanne Stabile’s book The Road Back to You (RBTY hereafter) puts it this way:
To borrow a quote from the British mathematician George Box, “All models are wrong, but some are useful.” That’s how I see the Enneagram. It is not infallible or inerrant. It is not the be-all and end-all of Christian spirituality. At best, it is an imprecise model of personality . . . but it’s very useful. (RBTY, 20)
That’s a duly humble starting point, but it’s at least a little disingenuous. Why? Because the reason for the Enneagram’s usefulness in the authors’ view is that it corresponds to a true understanding of human nature. Furthermore, this is an adamantly theological claim:
The good news is we have a God who would know our scrawny butt anywhere. He remembers who we are, the person he knit together in our mother’s womb, and he wants to help restore us to our authentic selves.
Is this the language of the therapeutic under the guise of theology? No. Great Christian thinkers from Augustine to Thomas Merton would agree this is one of the vital spiritual journeys apart from which no Christian can enjoy the wholeness that is their birthright. (RBTY, 23–24)
The Enneagram works because you really, truly have an authentic self—theologians say so. Richard Rohr and Andreas Ebert’s book The Enneagram: A Christian Perspective (ECP hereafter) is very clear about this:
The starting point of the Enneagram is the blind alleys into which we stumble in our attempt to protect our life from internal and external threats. The person, as created by God, is according to the Bible very good (Gen. 2:31). This human essence (one’s “true self”) is exposed to the assault of threatening forces even during pregnancy and at the latest from the moment of birth. The Christian doctrine of original sin points to this psychological fact by emphasizing that there actually is no undamaged, free, and “very good” person at any point of an individual’s existence. (ECP, 4–5)
Hence, for these authors, the major premise of the Enneagram—that we have “true selves” distorted by maladaptive personalities—is derived from a theological anthropology.
Let me be clear: doctrine is what Christian Enneagram authors are selling. Which is what provokes me to spend the time and effort writing about this. I have never felt the need or desire to write about other personality typologies that I’ve used, because none of them claims, “We have found this very helpful for lots of people, because God made humans a particular way.” At that point, I figure the Enneagram is asking for a rigorous theological critique. Why? Because it has made itself a spiritual/religious performance, taking up the idiom of Scripture and Christian theology.
If the crusader yells “Christ is Lord” while cleaving the infidel’s skull, the Enneagram consumer says “God made my true self” while taking up the shovel of the typology. The latter is not evil like the former—that is not the comparison. The comparison is that in each case the mutuality of two performances, as well as the entailment of a doctrine that purportedly regulates their meaning, is inevitable.
So, here’s how I think this works: You have an understanding of human nature, more or less explicit, more or less thought out. It’s inevitable—every culture and every person in a culture has some view of who we are, what our problem is, why, and how to fix it. This understanding plays the role of a doctrine, at least tacitly, and becomes a doctrine when it is articulated and taught.
Your understanding of human nature aligns more or less with Enneagram claims. If less, then your attempt to use the Enneagram will be a performance that makes less sense. If you hold a very different doctrine of human nature than the Enneagram’s true-self theology, you may find the Enneagram pretty unintelligible or ill-suited to growth, like someone handing you a shovel when the job before you is to write a story.
Think of a pilgrim to Jerusalem during the crusades, who chants “Christus est Dominus” on the road. Handing him a sword for the journey makes no sense precisely because Christ is Lord. It’s not that he can’t hold it or swing it or cleave the skull of the infidel. But the doctrine of Christ that regulates his performance of the pilgrimage makes those actions nonsensical.
Of course, you can pick up the shovel and start trying to uncover you true self, regardless of what you believe. Doctrine doesn’t force or prevent anything—grammar doesn’t prevent you from playing with a language or learning another or mixing them. But at some point, like a pilgrim swinging a sword, using this shovel to uncover your true self will indicate that your contrary claims about human nature are not true—that you are using the idiom of another belief system in a way that means something different in your usage. And it will ultimately demonstrate what doctrine is really regulating your performances and giving them meaning.
As with a crusader who tries to tell the family of the cloven infidel, “That’s not what I meant about Jesus,” denying the Enneagram’s theological entailments is futile. You can say the words, but they too are part of the coherent system regulated by mutually interpreting performances. Some doctrine regulates the claim that the Enneagram is “just a useful tool, and I don’t care about doctrine,” and the claim itself is a performance that accompanies the use of the typology. Doctrine isn’t dispensable.
I was talking with a friend about the Enneagram recently, and he said that the conversation made him think of 1 Thess 5:21: “but test everything; hold fast to what is good.” I received a more proverbial version of this advice in graduate school: “eat the fish, but spit out the bones.” Nothing, in other words, is necessarily all good or all bad, and some things may be extracted from their original context and used piecemeal “without the bones.” Right: you can pull “Christ is Lord” out of its biblical context and use it as a battle cry. Or, you can pull “Lord” out of its Roman imperial context and use it as a confession of suffering love. But there are limits. You can’t pull “Caesar is Lord” out of its context and make it a Christian confession, nor can you pull cleaving the skull of your neighbor out of its context and make it a sign of suffering love.
Interestingly, ECP opens with a reference to 1 Thess 5:21:
The New Testament calls Christians to the “discernment of spirits” (1 John 4:1). “Test everything; hold fast to what is good” (1 Thess 5:21). Paul trusts the community’s capacity to decide what it can critically adopt and what it can’t. In principle, the whole world and everything in it that is good, true, and beautiful is at the disposal of Christians: “For all things are yours . . . and you are Christ’s (1 Cor. 3:21, 23).
In their writings Paul himself and John the Evangelist have taken over and “baptized” ideas and images from the Greek philosophy of religion of their own day. Thus John describes Christ as the incarnate Logos (John 1). . . . John does not shy away from taking over this “esoterically handicapped” term. He recasts it and in that way he explains the Gospel to his contemporaries in linguistic categories that they understand. (xii–xiii)
Ebert goes on at length about baptizing nonChristian resources, concluding that “despite their ‘non-Christian’ origin such models have proved useful instruments of pastoral care. This is all the more true for the Enneagram, which has genuinely Christian features” (xiv). Now we are cutting close to my primary concern, which is the relationship between Christian doctrine and other cultural understandings that are a play in the Enneagram—in missiological terms, matters of contextualization and syncretism.
The example of logos theology is case in point: it is not that John uses an extracted, sanitized linguistic category. Logos theology is loaded with baggage, fraught with complications, and deeply related to the Platonism of some early streams of Christianity. John’s was a bold, risky, brilliant move, and it put Christian doctrine in a state of perpetual negotiation with the Hellenistic worldview—a negotiation that hasn’t ended in two millennia.
My point is that this negotiation is normative. We are supposed to be openly working out the implications of communicating between cultures and languages. Christian Scripture and doctrine itself is the product of such negotiations and the fusions that result. But it is naive to think that you can simply “baptize” pieces of a belief system. Once those crusaders were out of a job, most of them got shipped to the New World, where they baptized a lot of people at sword point. Christ is Lord, right? The result (aside from Latin American Catholicism) is called Christopaganism; it is a different religion by any doctrinal or sociological standard.
John does not baptize Greek logos philosophy. He transforms it. It becomes a loanword regulated by a totally different grammar. Yet, for Greek readers, it may carry a compressed philosophy—this is the risk of contextualization. It leaves the possibility of importing another grammar that would radically alter the use and meaning of the language.
Now, I’m not worried about what baggage the Enneagram carries from its ancient “baptized” sources. Rather, as I read the anthropological claims that are part and parcel of the Enneagram performance, it seems to me that those who pick up this shovel should be aware of the modern sources of its idiom and how much the supposedly Christian theology behind the Enneagram is being reconfigured as a different grammar. I think a lot of Enneagram consumers may be swallowing the bones.
What I think worth pointing out to those who pick up this shovel
I’ll start with the “Great Christian thinkers from Augustine to Thomas Merton” from the previous quote. The opening epigram of RBTY is a quote from Augustine: “Grant, Lord, that I may know myself that I may know thee” (5). That is a fair representation of what makes Augustine the patriarch of introspection in the Western Christian tradition. But consider what is says: Augustine believes that the image of God in human beings means that introspection can help us know God. For example, the “trinities” of memory, understanding and will or mind, knowledge, and love in the human manifest the Triune God. Augustine is not looking for his “true self.” That is a very different project.
Yes, Augustine pioneered spiritual autobiography and made the human self a major theme of Western Christianity. But the modern view of the self that seems to be in play in the Enneagram is many evolutions from Augustine. I’m going to rely on Charles Taylor’s The Ethics of Authenticity3 (EOA hereafter) for some explanatory aid (rather than his massive, groundbreaking tome Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity, which is far less accessible). These are long quotes, but I don’t think a summary would be half as convincing. Taylor explains:
[Authenticity] is a child of the Romantic period, which was critical of disengaged rationality and of an atomism that didn’t recognize the ties of community.
One way of describing its development is to see its starting point in the eighteenth-century notion that human beings are endowed with a moral sense, and intuitive feeling for what is right and wrong. The original point of this doctrine was to combat a rival view, that knowing right and wrong was a matter of calculating consequences, in particular those concerned with divine reward and punishment. The notion was that understanding right and wrong was not a matter of dry calculation, but was anchored in our feelings. Morality has, in a sense, a voice within.
The notion of authenticity develops out of a displacement of the moral accent of this idea. On the original view, the inner voice is important because it tells us what is the right thing to do. Being in touch with our moral feelings would matter here, as a means to the end of acting rightly. What I’m calling the displacement of the moral accent comes about when being in touch takes on independent and crucial moral significance. It comes to be something we have to attain to be true and full human beings.
To see what is new in this, we have to see the analogy to earlier moral views, where being in touch with some source—God, say, or the Idea of the Good—was considered essential to full being. Only now the source we have to connect with is deep in us. This is part of the massive subjective turn of modern culture, a new form of inwardness, in which we come to think of ourselves as beings with inner depths. At first, this idea that the source is within doesn’t exclude our being related to God or the Ideas; it can be considered our proper way to them. In a sense, it can be seen just as a continuation and intensification of the development inaugurated by Saint Augustine, who saw the road to God as passing through our own reflexive awareness of ourselves. (EOA, 25–27)
This is a masterfully brief rendition of complex transitions, and it locates Augustine clearly in relation to the distinctly modern notion of authenticity, in which both the moral accent of early Romantic self-awareness and the earlier goal of knowing God are displaced. One more long passage to indicate where things end up:
But to return to the ideal of authenticity: it becomes crucially important because of a development that occurs after Rousseau and that I associate with Herder—once again its major early articulator rather than its originator. Herder put forward the idea that each of us has an original way of being human. Each person has his or her own “measure” is his way of putting it. The idea has entered very deep into modern consciousness. It is also new. Before the late eighteenth century no one thought that the differences between human beings had this kind of moral significance. There is a certain way of being human that is my way. I am called upon to live my life in this way, and not in imitation of anyone else’s. But this give a new importance to being true to myself. If I am not, I miss the point of my life, I miss what being human is for me. (EOA, 29)
This is the powerful moral ideal that has come down to us. It accords crucial moral importance to a kind of contact with myself, with my own inner nature, which it sees as in danger of being lost. . . . Not only should I not fit my life to the demands of external conformity; I can’t even find the model to live by outside myself. I can find it only within.
Being true to myself means being true to my own originality, and that is something only I can articulate and discover. In articulating it, I am also defining myself. I am realizing a potentiality that is properly my own. This is the background understanding to the modern ideal of authenticity, and to the goals of self-fulfillment and self-realization in which it is usually couched. (EOA, 28–29)
Sound familiar? There is a reason that the Enneagram makes sense to so many postmodern consumers: it is speaking the culture’s native language.
“Authenticity” is the Enneagram’s stock-in-trade. The terms “true self” and “authentic self” are interchangeable in its literature. The words “It accords crucial moral importance to a kind of contact with myself, with my own inner nature, which it sees as in danger of being lost” could have been lifted from a review of The Road Back to You. Or, as the book itself puts it: “Worst of all, by overidentifying who we are with our personality we forget or lose touch with our authentic self—the beautiful essence of who we are” (RBTY, 23) Thus: “The purpose of the Enneagram is to develop self-knowledge and learn how to recognize and dis-identify with the parts of our personalities that limit us so we can be reunited with our truest and best selves, that ‘pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven,’ as Thomas Merton said” (RBTY, 24).
Indeed, Merton (listed alongside Augustine as the other great Christian thinker) seems to be the source of the “true self” language in Christian Enneagram parlance. Explaining the Enneagram’s “negative” approach, Rohr says, “The Enneagram does not have the intention of flattering or stroking the ‘empirical ego.’ Rather it aims to support efforts to let go of or render unnecessary what Thomas Merton calls the ‘false self'” (ECP, 23). Now, I’m not trying to pick a fight with Merton. I’m sure his fans will insist that his perspective is thoroughly Christian, and I’m not objecting. My point is that “authentic self” means something in the context of the late modern/postmodern understanding of the self. Authenticity is the doctrine regulating—or in a strong position to regulate—the performances of those who take up this shovel, especially those who say they don’t care about doctrine.
Frankly, you can sing “Christ is Lord” all day long while you shovel, but that doesn’t make the “authentic self” a Christian understanding of the human person nor make its discovery a pathway to knowing God. To reiterate, however, I’m not condemning the Enneagram. Nor am I deciding whether or how much modern authenticity can be incorporated, like logos philosophy, into a Christian “language.” I’m saying that we’re swimming in deep waters and strong currents, but everything I read and hear about the Enneagram from Christians suggests that we’ve forgone the discussion.
It needs to be said: the negotiation between the culture of authenticity and Christianity should be ongoing in the American context, and the Enneagram is currently ground zero for a lot of serious Christians.
Personally, I would advocate a different understanding of the human person—one that does not fixate on a previously lost, essentialized true self. I think there are good reasons to suspect that is a false path and that it has major implications for the way Christian identity is formed. But that must be for another post.
At this point, I can say that I see (and affirm the testimonies of others) that the Enneagram is useful. Yet, it seems to me like the usefulness of a shovel for a canoe trip: I might need it to dig the boat out of the mud, and it could serve as an emergency paddle, but formation of a Christian identity and the process of transformation look like they are about a fundamentally different sort of task than what the shovel is designed for. If you find yourself digging instead of paddling, you might be playing the wrong language game.
- The Road Back To You, “Dealing With Your Stuff: Continued Conversation with Nadia Bolz-Weber – Enneagram 8 (The Challenger) – Episode 4,” https://www.theroadbacktoyou.com/podcast/2016/7/17/dealing-with-your-stuff-continued-conversation-with-nadia-bolz-weber-enneagram-8-the-challenger-episode-4, 49:52–49:59. ↩
- George A. Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1984), 64. ↩
- Charles Taylor, The Ethics of Authenticity (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991) ↩