The Enneagram Issue: Reactive or Reflective?

Is the Enneagram a wisdom tool or a passing fad? Chuck DeGroat talks with In All Things about how people can misuse the Enneagram as it gains more popularity.

By now, maybe you’ve begun to get my ironic foray into the Enneagram, a now popular tool for self-understanding. Brought to the United States five decades ago from South America by a handful of teachers, the Enneagram isn’t the invention of some self-help guru. It was rightly embraced as a serious tool, introduced within the church in small pockets for the sake of intentional spiritual formation. Its nine types (which I regularly call “habits” or “energies” to distinguish this from personality tests) represent windows into how we relationally navigate a broken world.

Where we are today with the Enneagram, however, might be hardly recognizable and highly regrettable to the Bolivian born teacher Oscar Ichazo, who is widely regarded as one of the first to pass this wisdom tool off to those who’d bring it to the United States. Only six years ago, a Christian publisher wouldn’t include a chapter I wrote on the Enneagram for fear of its reception by evangelicals. Today, you’re apt to find Enneagram discussions in many evangelical churches. You’ll find podcasts up-and-down your podcast dial. The internet offers dozens of free tests. And people on social media debate about the Enneagram types of their favorite characters from Friends or Star Trek or contemporary politics. In fact, on Twitter you can follow the EnneaDog. What we’ve done with it is so classically. . . American.

Perhaps that’s why I’ve transitioned from enthusiastic to cautious.

Curiosity about oneself is good and important. After telling his own story in sometimes lurid detail, St Augustine begins chapter 10 of his Confessions with the cry, “Let me know myself. Let me know Thee!” Self-knowledge is urged by Calvin and Teresa of Avila, by Richard Baxter and John Owen. In her Interior Castle, St Teresa of Avila writes, “self-knowledge is so important that, even if you were raised right up to the heavens, I should like you never to relax your cultivation of it; so long as we are on this earth, nothing matters more than humility.”

But self-knowledge serves best as a doorway to humility. I once knew a pastor who loved personality tests. Everyone he knew was categorized—phlegmatic, extroverted, dominant, ESTP, idealist. He drew upon a range of different inventories and popular assessments. But it served a suspect agenda—with categories, he had power. In an instant, he could cut people down to size: “She’s such a melancholic…let’s keep her working behind the scenes or she’ll just depress everyone.”

Now, the difference between some of the major personality tests we know and the Enneagram is this: the Enneagram is concerned less about describing your personality and more concerned about naming what drives you and motivates you. This takes a bit more work. If I meet you at a social gathering, I might note that you’re a bit introverted, but I’ll have little clue as it what motivates you. And this is why so many of us have found the Enneagram to be a useful, albeit fallible, tool. We can gain real insight into ourselves by exploring what drives us.