The good, the bad, and the ugly of the Enneagram

On the way out of the door to my vacation to the Poconos, I grabbed two Richard Rohr texts. He is quite popular with many of us in Circle of Hope and I had yet to get my feet wet with the Catholic priest.

One of them is very popular among my friends. It’s the book he wrote about the Enneagram—it’s called The Enneagram: A Christian Perspective. The Enneagram is a personality typology, akin to the MBTI or the astrological signs.

I suppose I went in with a bitter taste in my mouth—I don’t think “Christian” is the best adjective, it is really only a noun because Jesus transforms us into new creations, he doesn’t just modify us into Christian things.

Evangelicals seem to take normal things and make them “Christian” things. It seems that they separate the sacred and secular with urgency and necessity. Rohr isn’t an evangelical, but he might have learned the trick from them. I think our Lord is the Lord of all, so I don’t bother to do that too much. I want to find God in all of creation. Nevertheless, it seemed to me from the outset that Rohr was trying to find Christian roots in the Enneagram, for what purpose I am not sure. I can only assume he was trying to help those Christians in the evangelical fold give the ancient typology a root in Jesus, thereby making it more persuasive.

The first third of the text discusses its origins—there are no clear roots, though most think it came from 19th and 20th Century thinkers. Rohr makes the argument that the desert fathers used it, he also makes many connections to its Sufi roots too. Rohr is known for his interfaith works and study, and so we are certainly going to encounter that when reading his texts. I’m a follower of Jesus and nothing else, so I must take it with a grain of salt. I guess I’m pluralistic enough to not throw the baby out with the bath water on this one. But here are some issues I had with it.

I couldn’t help but wonder why we need to “Christianize” something that might be Christian enough on its own, because it has truth in it. Rohr really points out the pagan roots of the Enneagram more than making a convincing argument that any Jesus-follower should pay attention to it. Furthermore, it is interesting that Rohr argues that Jesus Christ embodies all of the types of the Enneagram—a safe bet for evangelicals. But it might be questionable—one who is 100 percent divine and human has a personality, right?

Rohr does this against when he shoehorn Biblical characters into the Enneagram—sometimes he claims that characters that have just a few chapters written about them are a type! It seems like he’s forcing Jesus and the Bible into this when they don’t, nor does he need to.

The question for me is: why does something need to be contextualized into a Christian framework this much?

The book itself is filled with wisdom and is a good resource on understanding the differences, strengths and weakness, signature sins, redemption patterns, and attachment issues that every person deals with. Rohr is an expert on this and I really do love him for it. With this in mind, it is a stimulating text. I enjoyed finding “my type,” and pondering it—and I’ve had some good talks with my friends about it. But as I’ve been observing, the Enneagram has a tendency of making people use it as more than a tool. People are much more concerned with “who they are,” rather than who Jesus is making them.

The Enneagram seems to be a good tool, but it postures as more than that, as something necessary, important, and spiritual.

But it is fairly arbitrary after all—the list of nine “needs” that Rohr spells out, the sins associated with them, and so on, is a good list, but certainly not a definitive one (the argument for why these nine are used isn’t articulated clearly). Furthermore, reducing ourselves down to one of them probably limits us more than anything. Rohr warns his readers that it’s not wise to go around and “type” your friends. If we are not categorize each other, why give us such an easy way to do it—and why bother encouraging us to “find ourselves” in the Enneagram. That’s like telling a child not to eat from the cookie jar which you’ve place within their reach.

Two problems emerge if we elevate it too highly.

  1. The Enneagram becomes what offers us truth and hope. The Enneagram is then what saves us—it can be the thing replace Jesus, even after being coated with a Christian perspective. The Enneagram can be a sort of religion by itself, whose salvation is self-actualization. Self-discovery isn’t the end of it all. I won’t deny the importance of self-awareness in following Jesus—it is a crucial step—but let’s keep following Him after that.
  2. It offers too simplistic of an understanding of ourselves and others. If we go around typing individuals and ourselves, we might feel justified in our actions or damned to do them forever. We might reduce others down to their “types” and not see how Jesus might make them deeper or more than merely where they think they fall. I’ve born witness to such a reduction and objectification—it is arrogant and judgmental.

I think there’s probably a good reason to learn about the Enneagram because I think you might learn about yourself more through the process and potentially be a more devote follower of Jesus. Find God in it, but don’t assume God is in all of it, just because someone offers a “Christian perspective” on it.

8 Replies to “The good, the bad, and the ugly of the Enneagram

  1. Rohr likes the pagan roots because he’s really into Jesus being present in all cultures before Jesus’ disciples get there. This is a really mystical Jesus. There’s biblical evidence fir the claim but whatever text you might us is in conflict with Romans 10:14,How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?

    I like the enniagram has a psychology and self awareness tool. I like having a book full of thinking about the types in language and convictions similar to mine.

    I like your caution against reification (fancy word for thing-icing)

    1. Thanks, Benjamin. There is loads to like about the idea of the Enneagram, and I think Jesus is present in all cultures–I’m not sure that Rohr explicitly states that, but it is a good and generous reading of the text. I have to stay critical of people who think that rather than Jesus being present in all cultures, that he is merely a cultural artifact. Pluralism can do both things, but I think it more often does the latter.

  2. I’m pretty certain Jesus didn’t teach his first disciples to use Enneagrams, so it’s probably not as essential to discipleship as you say Rohr makes it out to be. But Jesus did teach us to pray, so if we pray and Enneagram, then I think we’re working our discipleship nicely. Great post, Jonny!

  3. Great post. It was really good to read another perspective on the Enneagram. Your point about typing people was well taken. It’s hard not to want to do that; especially for those of us with an inclination to do that already.

    Your other point about replacing Jesus with the Enneagram is one I hadn’t really thought of. While I haven’t applied Rohr’s suggestions it would seem to me that understanding myself better would help me learn what to pray for and possibly reveal a bit of the “how” God will continue to work on me. I wasnt thinking of self actualization as the goal, but I see the danger.

    Have you had any additional thoughts on the Enneagram sense you wrote this post?

  4. Great post. It was really good to read another perspective on the Enneagram. Your point about typing people was well taken. It’s hard not to want to do that; especially for those of us with an inclination to do that already.

    Your other point about replacing Jesus with the Enneagram is one I hadn’t really thought of. While I haven’t applied Rohr’s suggestions it would seem to me that understanding myself better would help me learn what to pray for and possibly reveal a bit of the “how” God will continue to work on me. I wasnt thinking of self actualization as the goal, but I see the danger.

    Have you had any additional thoughts on the Enneagram sense you wrote this post?

    1. Thanks for reading. I have a lot of thoughts. I think it is a useful tool, but I think it is only an accessory to prayer, spiritual direction, and community.

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