Columns Jana Riess: Flunking Sainthood Opinion

Why has the Enneagram become so popular among Christians?

“The Road Back to You: An Enneagram Journey to Self-Discovery” Image courtesy of InterVarsity Press.

(RNS) — “Everywhere I go, people talk about the Enneagram,” said Ian Morgan Cron, co-author with Suzanne Stabile of “The Road Back to You: An Enneagram Journey to Self-Discovery.” The book has sold more than 165,000 copies since its release in 2016 from Christian publisher InterVarsity Press. Cron has also spun off a successful podcast, Typology, which has grown to more than 300,000 downloads a month.

Full disclosure: I edited “The Road Back to You,” and I am even more fascinated by the Enneagram now than I was then. I first discovered the personality typing system some years before, when some pastor friends sat me down to explain how helpful this system had been for them in their ministry as well as in personal matters, like parenting their inscrutable teenagers.

“So it’s just a personality test?” I asked. I have since learned that referring to the Enneagram as “just” a personality test is to its aficionados like calling Beyoncé “just” a singer. It is a personality test, but it’s also so much more: a spiritual tool, a map of self-discovery and a discipline that will kick your butt with a new awareness of your shadow side.

I have become something of an evangelist for the Enneagram, which surprises me because I’m rarely a bandwagon person and because as a historian I find its provenance a bit dodgy. What we know about the Enneagram’s past is frankly sketchy. Various people have claimed it has religious roots in ancient Greece (“ennea” means “nine”), but there’s not much of a paper trail, and even flimsier evidence for claims of connections with Jewish or Sufi mysticism.

What we do know is that it surfaced in South America in the 1960s in more or less its current form of nine sacred types, each representing (in the broadest sense) a particular orientation: One is the Perfectionist, Two is the Helper, Three is the Performer and so on. Each basic type also contains a host of nuances that speak to the reality that human beings are each “fearfully and wonderfully made,” as the Psalm says. There are subtypes, “wings,” stances, triads, virtues and vices, among other subtleties.

The Enneagram didn’t burst onto the American scene right away. It started making gradual inroads in the 1970s as strictly an oral tradition, passed down from teacher to student but not recorded. Some teachers were afraid that if it were written down, the Enneagram would be trivialized and commercialized. But books began appearing in the 1980s and have recently accelerated: There are now books on how the Enneagram can help with your business, your sex life, your parenting style and of course your spiritual growth.

And yes, some trivialization has happened, but so has deep spiritual transformation, as many attest. Indeed, one of the big trends with the Enneagram now is how it is (finally) being recognized and adopted by traditional religious practitioners, Christians in particular.

Jan Shegda, conference chair for the International Enneagram Association, cites the work of Franciscan writer Richard Rohr as having been profoundly influential in mapping the intersection of Christian faith and the Enneagram. Rohr, who was an early teacher because his spiritual director was among the very first group to learn about the Enneagram, “has created quite a following in the Christian tradition,” according to Shegda.

“The Path Between Us: An Enneagram Journey to Healthy Relationships” Photo courtesy of InterVarsity Press

Rohr’s popularity has opened the door for other books on religion and the Enneagram, including not just “The Road Back to You” but also Stabile’s “The Path Between Us” and Christopher Heuertz’s “The Sacred Enneagram,” all published within the last two years.

These books, said Shegda, “are providing language that is more comfortable for the evangelical audience. People are feeling more comfortable and understanding more clearly what the Enneagram is all about.”

The religious focus will be apparent next week at the International Enneagram Association’s global conference, where several hundred Enneagram teachers and enthusiasts will gather in Cincinnati. I’ll be there too, soaking it up.

“There is going to be a session specifically about Christianity and the Enneagram, and another about the Buddhist approach to the Enneagram,” said Shegda. “So those two faith traditions will each have a formal workshop. But really, in any of the sessions you attend, there is a spiritual component.”

Also new this year is a separate “track” for programming related to personal and spiritual development.

Why the uptick in interest in the Enneagram, especially among Christians? In addition to the books from Christian presses, there are now church groups to discuss the Enneagram in many Protestant congregations: Episcopal, Methodist, Baptist and Presbyterian churches have joined Roman Catholic parishes in holding retreats and workshops on the Enneagram.

Cron said he also hears from readers and podcast listeners who are not interested in being part of a church but are still deeply interested in spiritual growth. Enter the Enneagram, which promises self-knowledge with or without traditional religious belonging. “In our world now, a lot of the institutions that helped people to understand who they were are gone, or they don’t have as much influence,” he explained.

 

About the author

Jana Riess

Senior columnist Jana Riess is the author of many books, including "The Prayer Wheel" (2018) and "The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church," which will be published by Oxford University Press in March 2019. She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.

24 Comments

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  • The only reason the Enneagram is popular among some is because of the need among some to pigeonhole people and categorize them into neat little boxes. They do this because they can’t wrap their little heads around the fact that each human being is different from the next. This frustrates some people and so they look to personality tests such as the Enneagram to help them deal with their frustration.

  • And here i thought that everything a Christian would need to know was found in the bible. Or the BOM. Pagan stuff instead.

  • Didn’t we just have an article about this hogwash a couple weeks ago? It’s just this year’s version of astrology.

  • I had to Google it, but I have to admit, that’s pretty much on target. Maybe there is something to this Enneagram thing after all!

  • Dude, you are batting 0 for 100 the past two days…

    I used to work with a girl who took a different personality test every two months or so. For whatever reason, she needed to “identify her strengths”.
    I used to tease her by saying – after 7 personality tests, you have no more strengths left to identify…
    I think some people are truly trying to figure out who they are; and this may be a way to assist in that process. Others, simply need positive affirmations because they feel inadequate and the test provides cheap therapy for them.
    Either way, its about them; not you eblabulus.

  • The need among some to pigeonhole people and categorize them into neat little boxes; like you do to with Republicans.

  • If this stayed in the “for your own personal knowledge/entertainment” category I really would not care. But, there are too many people who like you said use this as a means of “getting to know a person” rather than actually spending time with them. When I was in a religious community for a brief time (3yrs) they just loved to roll this crap out with the Myers/Briggs. My novice director, who herself was mentally unstable with severe personality issues, had little to no training or even a background in psychology and would always use these tests to tell me and others who we were. The test is idiotic and those who put their faith in a personality test that is not even utilized by professionals says it all. Next up will be horoscopes and birth charts.

  • Personality inventory exercises like the Enneagram, Myers-Briggs, et al. can be useful in helping people understand themselves better. More to the point, they can help us understand how others see things differently and learn to relate to them better.

    The flip side is that such inventories can also have a self-fulfilling prophecy effect, what some have called the tyranny of the new idea. I wish I had a dime for every time I’ve heard someone mutter some claptrap like, “Of course you see it that way. You’re a classic 5.”

    Moderation. In all things, moderation.

  • I would oppose you on this point, just because you need lots of good opposing anyway.

    Unfortunately, it seems you have said something I am unable to disagree with.

    I therefore am forced to delay your daily dose of opposition, until such time as you revert to saying your normal opposable statements. The End!

  • I liked something I once heard the elegant Nigella Lawson say, “Everything in moderation – including moderation!”

  • No, you have everything to do with it.

    And you do it “because of (your) need … to pigeonhole people and categorize them into neat little boxes. (You) do this because (you) can’t wrap (your) heads around the fact that each human being is different from the next.”

  • I would say that if it isn’t lifting Christ up, it’s nonsense. When Christianity becomes more about you than Christ, it isn’t Christianity

  • I believe that quote originally was from Oscar Wilde: “Everything in moderation, including moderation.”

  • Just go the the nearest Church of Scientology Center. They have been running this con for 60 years.

  • Re: “What we do know is that it surfaced in South America in the 1960s in more or less its current form …” 

    Whew! At least this author didn’t try to pass the enneagram off as being of ancient origin, or having been invented in the 4th century by the Desert Father Evagrius Ponticus (to be clear … no, he had nothing whatever to do with it). 

  • Has someone just come up with personality types based on “Green Grow the Rushes-o”?

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