A Response to Joe Carter’s TGC blog “The FAQ’s: What Christians Should Know About The Enneagram.”

Over at The Gospel Coalition, Joe Carter has written a thoughtful and measured blog on The Enneagram. I’d encourage you to read it.

With Joe, I’ve seen the shortcomings of this tool in my 15+ years of using it. I’m seeing it become an evangelical fad, of sorts. I had a whole chapter on it in my 2014 book Toughest People to Love (reviewed here at TGC) , but the publisher nixed it with the rationale that evangelicals were not ready for it. Apparently they are, as I wrote about in a short piece on The Twelve called The Year of the Enneagram in which I share some reflections, positive and challenging.

I’m mindful that with the rise in popularity of the Enneagram comes needed critique. I’m quite saddened that my seminary alma mater, RTS Orlando, has banned the teaching and use of this tool. I introduced it in a vocational counseling course I taught in the mid-2000’s when I was regularly teaching there, and found it extraordinarily helpful in that context. Measured critique, like Joe’s demonstrates, is important. That said, I do have some thoughts.

Joe’s piece got me thinking about fear. My gut-level experience of reading his piece was that skeptics of the Enneagram would be immediately reinforced in their skepticism, and that concerns me. Not once in his piece, by my reading, does Joe describe the enormous significance of the Enneagram as a way of understanding sin and the deeper motivations which drive us to disordered desires. But while you won’t find the word sin in his piece, you’ll find some form of the word “occult” 7 times. That’s concerning to me.

In Joe’s first section “Where Did The Enneagram Come From?”, Joe’s treatment is all-too-brief. While he is correct that the origins story is murky, I’d remind us all that 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. Whoever composed Psalm 29 wasn’t at all hesitant about re-appropriating a Baal song for Yahweh’s purposes. Our origins story and flood story, among others, were common pagan myths re-narrated for a new and better story. Moreover, who of us can read Augustine without the shadow of Plotinus looming, or Aquinas without Aristotle? A more generous origins story of the Enneagram would do a deep dive into the writings of Evagrius, Cassian and Gregory, showing how this modern-day tool is deeply reliant on a Christian theological tradition which viewed sin with a deadly seriousness and refused to settle for moralistic, sin-management techniques.

Katie Jo Ramsey has done an excellent job showing how this tool, although imperfect, is an important contemporary lens for understanding sin and sanctification. As I teach it through the lens of Augustine, Evagrius, Cassian and others, it reveals our sin as deadly passions, to use the ancient word. Theologian Wendy Farley writes,

The “passions” is an ancient name for some of the ways in which our own psyche helps to trap us in patterns of living that block us from our deepest joy. Passions have the connotation of bondage and uneasiness. They exemplify the way the soul can become twisted and turned in on itself (homo incurvatus en se) and alienated from the world around it. Anger and so on are passions when they move beyond passing emotions and take deep root in the soul, distorting mind, spirit, freedom, embodiment, agency, and, most of all, love. The passions muffle and distort holy desire. 

The Enneagram helps identify our passions as false self (or selves), a pseudo-identity which keeps us at a distance from our core identity (our true self) in Christ. While the Enneagram’s origins story doesn’t trace a clear line from this ancient wisdom to its contemporary form, Christians are no strangers to adopting forms and re-purposing them in service of Jesus. The Enneagram is clearly dependent on this orthodox spiritual tradition. Let’s not let fear keep us from using this one wisely.

A second reflection on Joe’s piece is the “why” of the Enneagram. The skeptic in me is sometimes hesitant to share the Enneagram with my students these days, knowing that it’s a wisdom tool, not a personality assessment. Sometimes my students are quick to adopt labels (“You’re a 3 because you’re such an Achiever” or “You’re an 8 because you’re angry”). This is unhelpful. Joe shares some helpful insights on the ‘why’ – the need for a classification tool, a MBTI replacement, a need for personality awareness. My addition would be a need for “story awareness.” As Katie Jo shows in her piece, a proper and wise use of the Enneagram opens us up to a larger conversation about how our family-of-origin, our relational and cultural contexts, and more contribute to ways of coping, often sinfully and maladaptively, in a broken world. In a time of identity politics, it probably feels like the last thing we need is another label-maker. But the Enneagram isn’t about telling you your personality or labeling you. It’s about raising questions related to your personality (your persona!), your ego, your style of relating, how you sin against yourself and neighbor. It raises the stakes in our conversations about how we hurt ourselves and each other. It gives us a lens through which we can see all the ways we’re living in exile from our true home in Christ.

Joe’s section “Why are some evangelicals opposed to the Enneagram?” was the least helpful to me. I’m not sure how he can say that evangelicals that oppose the Enneagram tend to be older and those who like it tend to be younger. Is this a research-based finding or an observation? It’s altogether inconsistent with my experience of it over 15+ years. In fact, those who are older are the great role models of how to use it wisely and well! And connecting people’s fear to the symbol of a Pentagram is, again, an observation Joe makes that is wholly inconsistent with what I’ve seen (I’ve maybe seen it once). Joe and I may run in different circles, but in my experience lay-evangelicals have been open and curious. I’ve found resistance among clergy and academics who are also resistant to psychology, who prefer Bible-only categories, and who haven’t spent significant time trying to understand it. This may simply be a difference in context.

Joe’s section on the accuracy or usefulness of the Enneagram offers helpful reflections, but I’d offer a few caveats. David Daniel’s work at Stanford is a rigorous, research-based work which seeks scientific validity and reliability for a tool that emerged outside of the sciences. Joe’s concerns about the Barnum effect are important, but if the tool is used wisely, effective coaches and spiritual directors will encourage people to take their process of self-understanding slowly, not trying to identify with a particular Enneagram type immediately, but engaging people who know them well and discerning their deeper motivations over time. What Joe doesn’t say is that the early practitioners did not want the Enneagram distributed widely for fear that it would be trivialized and over-simplified.

Over-simplication leads to quick typing. Wisdom leads to a slow process of self-discernment. Our deadly passions become so intertwined with our personalities that it is often hard to discern false self from true self. Again Farley writes:

At another level, passions become second nature and seem to he an essential part of our identity. The more they have entwined themselves with one’s self-identity, the more difficult they will be to dethrone. Passions blend with self-identity, though not in the sense that we conceive ourselves as terrified or enraged. These may be the last things we associate with ourselves. But we do incorporate the effects of these passions into our self-understanding.

Thus, the Enneagram, properly used, offers a slow process of self-examination meant to invite us to a larger conversation about our stories and our forms of self-sabotage, not a quick and convenient typing tool.

In the end, Joe leaves his readers to discern personally whether this tool can be a helpful pathway for self-knowledge. I appreciate that. I suspect Joe would agree that self-knowledge is of supreme important to the Christian. I remember slowly and reflectively paging through Richard Baxter’s massive tome On the Mischiefs of Self-Ignorance and the Benefits of Self-Acquaintance back when I was completing my MDiv and transitioning to a second degree in mental health counseling. I needed a strong anchor for this work. I am suspicious of quick and simplistic appropriations of psychology, and I hope that is evidenced in my books and other writings. Rightly used, I think the Enneagram is a gift to the church. In a time when we’re consumed by taking off and putting on our various identities like masks in a play, it invites us to name our illusions and rest in union with Christ.

If you are interested in a process that does this slow, wise work of self-knowledge, I commend to you a wise Christian and Enneagram coach Beth McCord. I lead Enneagram retreats and do coaching, as well, but Beth’s work is really impressive and thorough. My friend AJ Sherrill has written a book and leads retreats, and his connections to spiritual practices as well as his pastoral wisdom is significant.

Resist the gimmickification of the Enneagram (Yes, I made up that word). But don’t abandon it as a helpful way of knowing yourself.

Joe, if you read this, thanks for your measured piece. I hope this is received in the spirit of thoughtful and charitable dialogue among Christians.

3 responses

  1. Excellent response! I find it interesting that movements and traditions keying in on the doctrine of depravity resist the Enneagram — a tool, narrative, and framework that shines the light on sin in our own hearts while leading us to become more like Jesus.

  2. Very nice response. So thankful this piece and the insight from the Willow post yesterday. I wholeheartedly affirm my friend Beth McCord, appreciate AJ Sherill’s work and would like to plug Marilyn Vancil as well (Self to Lose, Self to Find). We would love you to check out our work as well – http://www.gospelpathway.com

  3. I guess I just don’t understand why so many expend so much energy defending or using this when there is no real Scriptural connection. Yes I read both articles, but like Joe and DeYoung, I don’t see that much benefit in something that needs so much defense. But if it is useful, to each his own. Again, I just don’t see the need to staunchly defend something that is…murky at best.

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