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Singing the enneagram blues

Posted by Ron George on April 9, 2009

The enneagram: Nine energy centers of human personality

The enneagram: Nine energy centers of human personality

I had a really lousy introduction to the enneagram some years ago. It seemed like an awful way to think about something as complex as human personality: Nine types of people, each type possessed of a constellation of tell-tale traits and behaviors, a way of knowing something about someone else without really knowing them at all. The enneagram — and if you’re not familiar with the concept, check out this Web site — was presented to me then as a means of “diagnosing” people in spiritual direction, presumably to help them discover ways of prayer compatible with their personality types. It seemed like a crock to me, especially when I heard a nun say something like, “I knew a seven once who thought he was a nine, until he finally got it.” Statements like that gave me the creeps — and still do.

I’m always ready to eat some crow, which isn’t bad once you get used to it (and I am). I’ve discovered lately that I have dear friends at church who say their lives were changed by insights that came through their examination of the enneagram. When people you love say things like that, maybe it’s time for another look. So when we had weekly adult formation classes at church on the enneagram, I read just about everything at the Enneagram Institute Web site and took the long test twice; read Richard Rohr’s The Enneagram: A Christian Perspective and listened to a stack of Rohr CDs on the subject. It didn’t make me an expert, but it did take some of the testiness out of my opinion of the enneagram.

I don’t buy the idea that the enneagram is something mystical or that it originated in antiquity. The Enneagram Institute folks downplay that part of it. Rohr, however, argues from total silence that the enneagram presents insights from the third- and fourth-century desert tradition of Christianity. He doesn’t get hung up in the antiquity debate, though, because (1) it’s silly, and (2) he believes the enneagram “works” regardless of its age in human history. In my view, the less one knows about the enneagram’s history the more sense it makes; otherwise, the device looks more like the zodiac than a meaningful typology of human personality based on insight and experience.

Rohr says the enneagram is a negative system of self-examination, that until you’re “outed” and somewhat humiliated by enneagramic insights, you won’t benefit from them. As I listened to Rohr’s CDs, my favorite verse from the psalms came to mind: “Search me out, O God, and know my heart; try me, and know my restless thoughts. Look well whether there be any wickedness in me, and lead in the way that is everlasting.” In a nutshell, that’s what the enneagram purports to do. Rohr maintains that it’s all about God and the transformation of human energies, and that anything else is a parlor game hooked on traits and number games. I couldn’t agree more.

Search me out: In enneagramic terms, we cooperate with God in this, opening our hearts and minds in faith to let the Spirit show us what we have become as well as who we really are. More than likely, we’ll find that we’re one of nine types of people. (Why nine? Who knows? It doesn’t seem to matter.) This is a process of discernment, because there’s a little piece of me in all the types; however, one of the types is more of a portrait of me than the others. Some types are harder than others to discern, but if you stay with it, one type will emerge. It’s the type of person I have become over decades of life, from upbringing through adult crises to a desire to let God change me. (See this link for an explanation of the “Forer Effect,” a theory suggesting that typologies like the enneagram work because we want them to.) Rohr says the enneagram is not for children or young adults. The device and its insights, he says, begin to be relevant for those in their mid-30s or older.

Know my heart: Again, in cooperation with God, I discover my type by via negativa, by seeing that I have outwardly and visibly become enmeshed with a false self that worked for me in ways that seemed beneficial for much of my life but which finally collapsed, because it never was “the way, the truth and the life.” The flip side of my false self is my true self. It’s is not a new personality but the same human energy center transformed by God. As St. Paul says, God is strong where I am weak; where I am beset and immobilized by fear, God within me is courageous and strong. It’s a movement of faith to let it happen, because I will fail to change if I attack the problem with the false self that I have become.

Try me, and know my restless thoughts: Our hearts find no rest until they rest in God, according to Augustine of Hippo, whose false self became the stuff of literary history in his Confessions, which has provided spiritual nourishment to Christians for more than 1,500 years. Augustine is a perfect example of what Rohr calls “letting the Devil do God’s work.” Put another way, Rohr says we’re doomed to defeat if we treat evil as mere “spectacle” — a battle to be “won” — and fail to acknowledge its subtlety, and that the way to freedom is awareness and transformation, not will power. The serpent in Eden, after all, used guile not force to induce humanity’s disobedience, by which we live into our false selves. Our prayer is that God will try us in our restlessness, that we will become aware in the Spirit of our false selves and by faith — by letting God love us — discover our true selves as the flip side of our sin, which becomes virtue.

Look well whether there be any wickedness in me: Transformation of the false self — not its overthrow — begins with conversion by the grace of God; moreover, getting to know, to occupy, to become one’s true self is a steady, lengthy process of growth rooted in self-examination (awareness, again) and repentence, which is letting the false self, the lie we’ve believed about ourselves, be transformed by the power of God’s love.

Lead me in the way that is everlasting: Rohr says redeeming my personality, my energy center, is God’s work not mine. I am cooperative, but if I try to take on my flawed, false self by being my flawed, false self, I will fail. Whatever is everlasting about me — my true self, my soul — is constituted by God’s grace, not by the energies of my intellect and will power. Whatever is eternal about human life, including the transformation of my soul, begins here and now, not someday, somewhere else — not in Heaven. It’s our privilege to have this knowledge and to rest in this peace confident that we are led on an everlasting way.

None of this is new to sensible, mature Christians, who with or without the enneagram have become aware of their need for redemption by God’s grace and are willing to give themselves over to transformation by the power of God’s love. The enneagram does provide a schema, a device, for appreciating and, perhaps, interpreting our experience. The twentieth-century Jesuits who developed this system originally hoped it would remain a kind of gnosis or secret knowledge passed among spiritual directors; because, as Rohr points out, when stripped of its spiritual theology the enneagram loses its interpretative power and becomes at best a harmless parlor game or, at worst, a pernicious means of manipulation and control.

I’m persuaded that the enneagram can be a useful device for discovering insights that lead to repentence and transformation through deeper awareness of ourselves. I’m also persuaded that this conversation occurs between me and God and that my “type” is a kind of intimate knowledge to be kept among my dearest friends and, perhaps, my pastor or spiritual director. Rohr, however, makes no secret of his being a “one,” and he persuasively uses himself as a kind of whipping boy for how “enneagramic knowledge” operates in one’s spiritual life. (“Ones” tend to be self-righteous reformers.) He’s also into aligning personality types with certain kinds of animals (“Eights” are like rhinoceroses, for example, because they tend to run over people), which I can’t fathom at all; and he generalizes the personality types into national stereotypes, which seems to be of more rhetorical than practical value. (Germany, for example, is a “6” nation because it is “fear-driven.” The United States is a “3” nation, because it success oriented.)

There’s something dubious about all of this, despite Rohr’s flawless presentation of the nature of evil, human sin and redemption. The animals and the national stereotypes seem to be more parlor game than sound moral theology. Sizzle, maybe, but definitely not steak. Crowd pleasing, but not essential.

The enneagram is probably not for everyone, although its insights, as Rohr explains them, are universal. You can “get there” without it, but as one of my friends at church said recently, it can be a helpful shortcut, not only for one’s self but in close, personal relationships. I would add that it’s also a handy device for the traditional spiritual practice of self-examination. In fact, I have used it that way this Lent.

I would stop way short, however, of using the enneagram as a diagnostic tool for others and especially for analyzing groups. You’d think that, at least in the church, we’d be content to encounter the mystery of other people created in God’s image and to let love unpack our relationships a little bit at a time. We’re not called by God to figure each other out but to let God lead us into friendship and fellowship as members of the Body of Christ. Frankly, I’d rather not know your type, unless you believe it would be helpful and then only in confidence. I’ve got no business telling someone else your type. If it’s true that these enneagramic types disclose something true about me or you, then it’s also something private. Or should be. The joy of making friends is, “Getting to know you,” not “I’ve got your number.”

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One Response to “Singing the enneagram blues”

  1. Jan said

    And here I was feeling guilty for not sending you my Rohr notes. You got as much as I wrote down here and with all your research.

    I don’t think the Enneagram is “the” answer for analyzing or categorizing someone–or even the key to spiritual growth. It’s an aid that may help. It has helped me to realize the individuality of my own children lately, even as they are adults. Ah ha moments–as I’m often “slow.”

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