If you haven’t heard of the Enneagram yet, it won’t be long before you do.
After being used for several decades in Catholic retreats and seminars, the nine-type personality tool has seen an explosion of popularity in evangelical circles. Since 2016, evangelical publishers have released at least three-full length books on the Enneagram: The Road Back to You: An Enneagram Journey to Self-Discovery (IVP 2016), The Sacred Enneagram: Finding Your Unique Path to Spiritual Growth (Zondervan 2017), and Mirror for the Soul: A Christian Guide to the Enneagram (IVP 2017). A new book—The Path Between Us: An Enneagram Journey to Healthy Relationships (IVP)—is set to release in April.
Beyond books, the Enneagram (pronounced any-a-gram) continues to receive a warm reception on a number of blogs and evangelical media outlets with articles like: “What All Christians Need to Know About the Enneagram” and “The Never Ending Quest to Know Ourselves.” In particular, Christianity Today has been a frequent advocate of the Enneagram, touting what the Enneagram has to offer Christians, how evangelicals can use it, and, just recently, how it can be a tool for pastors. On a personal note, I have good friends who swear by the Enneagram as the means by which God showed them their blindspots and helped them overcome weaknesses in their personality.
So what should we make of this new (or ancient?) personality wheel with a strange name?
Journey of Discovery
I want to get at the question in a simple, straightforward—and admittedly limited—way. I’m going to look at The Road Back to You by Ian Morgan Cron and Suzanne Stabile. I’ve chosen this book for several reasons: it was the first one (so far as I know) to come out with an evangelical publisher, it has been successful enough to spawn a soon-to-be-released sequel, and its authors are popular experts on all things Enneagram.
I understand that some fans of the Enneagram will say, “But that’s not what I believe!” Or, “That’s not how I use it!” I get that. It’s a tool that can be adopted and adapted to a variety of theologies and contexts. But you have to start somewhere, and The Road Back to You seems as good a place as any to dive in and interact with this increasingly popular tool of self-discovery. Hereafter in this post, my analysis with the Enneagram will be through reviewing this single book.
So What Is It?
Ok, enough preface. What are we actually talking about?
The Enneagram teaches that there are nine different personality styles in the world, one of which we naturally gravitate toward and adopt in childhood to cope and feel safe. Each type or number has a distinct way of seeing the world and an underlying motivation that powerfully influences how that type thinks, feels and behaves. (24)
While the ancient roots of the Enneagram are sketchy—maybe it started with a monk, maybe with with Sufism, maybe with occult practices—most everyone agrees that the modern Enneagram entered America by way of the psychiatrist Claudio Naranjo, a student of a Chilean named Oscar Ichazo who rediscovered the Enneagram in the early 1970s. From Naranjo, the Enneagram entered the Catholic world through Father Robert Ochs, and then later made another splash when the Franciscan Friar Richard Rohr began writing and speaking on it (10-14).
At first glance, the Enneagram may look like just another personality test, along the lines of discovering your Myers-Briggs type, knowing the color of your parachute, finding your strengths, or realizing you’re a golden retriever instead of a beaver. But Cron and Stabile are adamant that the Enneagram is much more than a psychological profile. “The true purpose of the Enneagram is to reveal to you your shadow side and offer spiritual counsel on how to open it to the transformative light of grace” (31). Growing up, we learn to cope with the emotional wounds we receive in childhood. In order to protect us from pain, we “place a mask called personality over parts of our authentic self” (22).
The Enneagram is not the end-all and be-all of Christian spirituality, Cron and Stabile acknowledge, but it is an incredibly useful tool God can use to help restore us to our authentic selves (20, 23). “Buried in the deepest precincts of being,” Cron writes, “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” (23). At its root, the Enneagram is a healing message of self-knowledge and self-awareness (34). We all put on masks. We all struggle to feel like we are okay in the world and okay to be who we are. Enter the Enneagram as a tool for letting go of the stranger we’ve become (24). “The purpose of the Enneagram is to show us how we can release the paralyzing arthritic grip we’ve kept on old, self-defeating ways of living so we can open ourselves to experiencing more interior freedom and become our best selves” (36).
Each of us has one of nine, fixed personality types (ennea being the Greek word for “nine”). Cron and Stabile label the nine types: (1) the perfectionist, (2) the helper, (3) the performer, (4) the romantic, (5) the investigator, (6) the loyalist, (7) the enthusiast, (8) the challenger, and (9) the peacemaker. Each personality type, in turn, belongs to a particular triad (related to your head, heart, or gut), has wing numbers (leaning into other types), stress numbers (the bad qualities you pick up when you’re unhealthy), and security numbers (the good qualities you pick up when you’re healthy). The bulk of the book moves through each type (not in order), explaining what these people are like, what famous people are like them, what they need to confront in themselves, and how each of us needs the grace of God to learn to be okay with our true self.
The book is written in Cron’s voice with Stabile’s Enneagram expertise in the background. Cron is a good writer—clear, funny, informative, and entertaining.
I also appreciate how the book takes seriously our need to change. This is NOT a book that says you are fine just the way you are. Your personality type may be fine, and your true self may be luminous, but the way we all act is tainted with unhealthy habits. Cron and Stabile want us to stop hurting people, including ourselves. That’s commendable.
More to the point, I don’t doubt that many people can learn useful things about themselves and others from the Enneagram. I always find that books like this have a few good commonsense nuggets of truth. I’ve done Myers-Briggs, DISC, spiritual gifts inventories, spiritual temperament books, strength finders, and a smattering of other self-discovery books and tests. It can be helpful to realize that you are driven to succeed, or that your co-worker hates conflict, or that your spouse is an adventurous romantic. When put in their proper place, there’s something to learn from the find-your-personality literature.
And yet, on the whole, The Road Back to You is bound to be more harmful than helpful. Let me mention three criticisms, finishing with the most serious.
First, the Enneagram, as presented in this book, is far less revolutionary than most proponents would have you believe. I have to admit I found the whole thing tedious and formulaic. If you offer a one-sentence description of each number to a thoughtful, mature adult, I bet he could pretty well describe each type without any knowledge of the Enneagram. There’s only so many ways to skin a cat. We’re all sanguine, choleric, melancholy, or phlegmatic. Or we’re lions, golden retrievers, beavers, and otters. Or we’re ESTJs and INFPs and everything in between. Once you know that Eights (the challenger) are commanding, confrontational, and afraid of being vulnerable, the analysis writes itself.
The book started running together in my mind as I learned that Nines were wounded as children and need to hear the message that God loves them . . . and Twos were also wounded as children and need to hear the message that God loves them. Ones need to hear, “You’re imperfect, and you’re wired for struggle, but you are worthy of love and belonging” (108), while Threes need to hear, “You are loved just for who you are” (146). As a cure of souls, the Enneagram, once you get past all the fancy triads and wings, is one size fits all: stop trying to measure up, find your true self, and accept that God loves you and will take care of you.
Second, the Enneagram has an air or scientific precision without any real basis for authority. Throughout the book, we read about “so-and-so who is an Eight” or “my friend who is a Two,” as if we were mentioning someone’s height or hair color. One of the author’s daughters is even confidently labeled as a 9w8 (Nine with an Eight wing). But what do these designations really amount to? Cron writes that every Eight he knows oozes confidence (44). Of course they do, because that’s what we’ve defined Eights to be. If they were timid and unsure of themselves, we’d give them another number.
It wouldn’t be so bad to give ourselves observational labels, except that Cron and Stabile insist that personality type never changes (37). This is who we are, and we must discover our own number. But what if the whole thing is a crap-shoot? Is it really the case they every Eight picked up the wounding message as a child that the world is a hostile place where only the strong survive (48)? And how do we really know that Barack Obama, Bill Murray, and Renee Zellweger are Nines (67)? Or that Jerry Seinfeld, Nelson Mandela, and Hillary Clinton are Ones (93)? Or that Sixes like Ellen Degeneres and Jon Stewart have a deep-seated need to feel secure (191-92)? Again, it’s one thing to make general comments about how certain types of people tend to respond in certain ways. It’s quite another to develop an elaborate system that assigns a lifelong number to people and then confidently assigns motivations and unpacks their childhood accordingly.
Third, and most importantly, the Enneagram presents an approach to spirituality that is alien to, and often at odds with, the language and contours of Scripture. Although Cron and Stabile argue that the Enneagram does not smuggle in the therapeutic under the guise of the theological (24), the book is awash in therapeutic language. Every chapter talks about some combination of forgiving myself, finding my true self, becoming spiritually evolved, being healed from wounded messages, dealing with codependent behaviors, and pursuing personal wholeness. This is not the language of the Bible. We hear nothing about fear of man, the love of the praise of man, covenantal promises, covenantal threats, repentance, atonement, heaven or hell. When faith is mentioned it’s described as believing in something or someone bigger than you (203).
The spirituality of the Enneagram in The Road Back to You bears little resemblance to biblical spirituality. In the book we meet a man named David who is described as having a “meet Jesus” crisis that “brought him face-to-face with himself.” You would have thought that a “meet Jesus” moment would bring you face-to-face with Jesus. But in this case David learned to put effort into becoming his true self, so that he says, “Today I think far less about working and winning and more about David-ing” (136). Not surprisingly, then, the last page of the book includes this line from Thomas Merton: “For me to be a saint means to be myself” (230).
To be sure, The Road Back to You has a fall, but it is not mankind’s sinful rebellion against God. It’s that we’ve “lost connection” with our God-given identity (230). In a critical section at the beginning of the book, the authors describe their understanding of sin: “Sin as a theological term has been weaponized and used against so many people that it’s hard to address the subject without knowing you’re possibly hurting someone who has ‘stood on the wrong end of the preacher’s barrel,’ so to speak.” To be sure, we must face “our darkness,” but then Cron and Stabile give this definition of sin (from Rohr): “Sins are fixations that prevent the energy of life, God’s love, from flowing freely. [They are] self-erected blockades that cut us off from God and hence from our own authentic potential” (30). To quote their definition is to refute it. There is nothing here about sin as lawlessness, sin as spiritual adultery, sin as cosmic betrayal against a just and holy God.
Yes, the great Christian theologians have talked about the importance of knowing oneself. Calvin, for example, is cited as one who argued for the necessity of self-discovery (15). True, Calvin argues that we must know ourselves to know God, but what we must know is our “shaming nakedness” which exposes “a teeming horde of infirmities.” Knowledge of self is indispensable because from “the feeling of our own ignorance, vanity, poverty, infirmity” we can recognize “that the true light of wisdom, sound virtue, full abundance of every good, and purity of righteousness rest in the Lord alone” (Inst. I.1.i).
The Road Back to You has no doctrine of conversion, because the human condition described has no need of regeneration. “It may be hard to believe,” Cron and Stabile write, “but God didn’t ship [Fours] here with a vital part absent from their essential makeup. Fours arrived on life’s doorstep with the same equipment everyone else did. The kingdom is inside them too. Everything they need is here.” (165) This is not evangelical spirituality. It’s no wonder the book does not interact with Scripture (except for referencing the story of Mary and Martha) and quotes mainly from Catholic contemplatives like Thomas Merton, Richard Rohr, and Ronald Rolheiser, while also referencing “spiritual leaders” like the Dalai Lama, Lao-Tzu, and Thich Nhat Hahn. You don’t have to be a Christian to benefit from the Enneagram journey in this book, because there is nothing about the journey that is discernibly Christian.
The book begins and ends with a prayer—a prayer of blessing that perfectly captures what The Road Back to You is about:
May you recognize in your life the presence, power, and light of your soul. May you realize that you are never alone, that your soul in its brightness and belonging connects you intimately with the rhythm of the universe. May you have respect for your individuality and difference. May you realize that the shape of your soul is unique, that you have a special destiny here, that behind the facade of your life there is something beautiful and eternal happening. May you learn to see yourself with the same delight, pride, and expectation with which God sees you in every moment. (18-19, 230)
I’m sure that some Christians will be quick to respond, “Sounds like a goofy book, but that’s not how I use the Enneagram.” I’m thankful for that. But then I’d encourage these brothers and sisters to dial back the Enneagram enthusiasm, like way back. If you want to scrap most of the Enneagram history, therapeutic baggage, and Catholic mysticism, I suppose you could still have a personality tool that might open your eyes to a thing or two. But then I’d glean a few insights quietly and distance myself from the seminars, the experts, the books, the articles, and the nomenclature of the Enneagram. If the Enneagram were another version of What Color Is Your Parachute? or Strengths Finder, that would be fine. But it has been, from its inception (whenever that was), infused with spiritual significance. And therein lies the danger.