The Enneagram: The Appeal to Moral Neutrality
The purpose of this article is not to describe or to explain the Enneagram in the historical, philosophical, or spiritual senses of the term. Though for clarity, we will summarize that the Enneagram to some is nothing more than a rubric for personality identification—mere diagramming or typology; to others the Enneagram is a key which opens the door of self-awareness—a method which distills the almost limitless conceptual categories which might describe the human soul down to those which meaningfully covary; still others conceive of the Enneagram as a symbolic map of prescriptive pathways which lead the practitioner to God. Other articles have made headway in fleshing out these ideas. Similarly, the purpose of this article is not to critique the Enneagram, Christian mysticism, or the spiritual formation movement in any direct sense. Instead, this article acts as a rumination on the structure of an oft-repeated justification for the use of the Enneagram in the sphere of Christian mysticism and the spiritual formation movement, a justification which has as its antecedent a presupposition which appeals to moral neutrality. To put it simply, this article argues that treating the Enneagram as a morally neutral tool which can be used for good or ill is incompatible with the contemplative and mystical conceptions of creation, the human spirit, and God.
It might be said accurately that those with a conservative disposition often harbor skepticism for the new; in fact, skepticism of the new might accurately identify the conservative. Should hastiness get the better of the conservative, he or she might prematurely lash out against novel and valuable ideas. But if one remains measured, carefully researches the matter, and rightly and lovingly divides truth from error by means of the Scripture and his or her God-given faculties, he or she might, for example, see that on the one hand there is no cause for concern or on the other hand that he or she has no recourse except to labor to convince a person with say a more liberal disposition—who is in the best sense eager for new ways to live and love—that some concern is warranted. So it is with Evangelical Christianity’s deepening engagement with the Enneagram. Many who are conservatively predisposed are quick to criticize the Enneagram and its applications in a number of important ways. Many who are liberally inclined are quick to embrace the Enneagram, its premises, and its implications.
Over the past decade Christians with (what is likely) a more conservative demeanor have developed four primary criticisms of the Enneagram. First, a number of sources have correctly pointed out, and virtually no doubt remains, that the Enneagram originates from pagan sources. Second, critics claim that the Enneagram’s implicit and explicit existential purpose is to function as a numerological divination tool. Third, the Enneagram lacks any meaningful, sound, or peer reviewed clinically or scientifically rigorous testing or scrutiny. Fourth and finally, some critics charge that the Enneagram is at its base a symbolic and principally esoteric system, the rules of which are sufficiently fluid so as to allow for a nearly infinite number of interpretations—none of which are strictly verifiable, much less falsifiable.
Many apologists for the Enneagram, to their credit, have attempted to deal with these four critiques in a holistic and geometric manner, offering in the place of a cadre of haphazard defenses a governing principle that might satisfy all critiques simultaneously. Their defense is an appeal to moral neutrality; specifically, the Enneagram, many claim, is simply a tool like a hammer or a knife, which can be used for good or evil; the Enneagram, according to this line of reasoning, is morally inactive or properly amoral. What gives the Enneagram a moral trajectory, according to this line of reasoning, is the intention of the hand which wields it. As author and Enneagram popularizer John Starke wrote of the Enneagram in his 2016 article for Christianity Today,1 “Like every tool, a popular self-assessment test known as the Enneagram has the capacity to heal or to harm, depending on how it’s used.” Leading Enneagram teacher, Joanna Quintrell of the Journey Center, put it this way, “It’s not something to be scared of … it’s a tool for transformation.”2 Psychologist and spiritual director, Suzanne Zuercher, in defense of the Enneagram refers to it as merely an “instrument” and a “tool for self-understanding.”3 Enneagram advocate, Michelle Monet, positions the Enneagram as one of several potentially helpful “tools” for being “the best you can be.”4 Furthermore, author and Enneagram trainer, Miriam Adahan, has an entire chapter in her book, Awareness: The Key to Acceptance, Respect, Forgiveness, and Growth, dedicated to the idea that the Enneagram is simply a tool that can be used or misused.5
What these teachers of the Enneagram additionally have in common, and what is at the crux of this article, is that each is intimately connected with the world of Christian contemplative mysticism and the spiritual formation movement. What might not be obvious, however, is how truly peculiar it is to hear contemplatives appeal to such, frankly, materialistic and Enlightenment conceits as moral neutrality in the defense of the Enneagram.
The reason this is odd is that the modern Christian mystic has a great deal more in common with and by all appearances intends to embrace if not completely return to the Medieval-mind, which in contrast to the Enlightenment-mind saw the universe not as a world of objects or tools but as a moral landscape, each material and ethereal atom of which God imbued with purpose, meaning, and value. Few in the Age of Faith considered the possibility that material reality and its more conceptual forms might be best described as simply utilitarian and morally neutral. This fact is particularly demonstrable in the sphere of philosophical objects. All philosophical objects are propositional and, therefore, cannot be morally neutral, for any truth claim is either true or false—there are no partially true truths. Far from a morally neutral world, for the Medieval-mind God imprinted His invisible attributes, octave by octave, on all things. Creation, therefore, to the Medieval-mind is not random nor merely useful in a mundane sense but active and utterly permeated with duty and responsibility—marked with the fingerprints of the Lawgiver. Put plainly, God created all things to be good rather than morally inert.
I’m sympathetic to this aspect of the Christian mystical perspective. Post-Enlightenment reductionism and materialism forged a devil’s bargain with its citizenry—who happily traded God for every exotic elixir necessary to power the engines of their own apotheosis. But apotheosis is a seal struck on both sides: from the contemporary historical perspective the obverse of the seal is secular humanism and the reverse is spiritual Gnosticism. Of the latter the Christian must be particularly cautious, for the world—marked so acutely with the scars of pain, suffering, and loss according to every evidence—is not so much a reflection of God’s proper intent as it is humanity’s ignorant and altogether self-seeking perversions, which flow from the absolute core of each person’s fallen being; the veil has been torn, and humanity’s interior spark of divinity has been found not merely shrouded but missing entirely. All of this so that it might be clear that, apart from the salvation which is found in Christ Jesus alone, in humankind dwells no good thing. Therefore, both that which is external to the person and also internal belongs not merely to the domain of ‘is’ but also the domain of ‘ought.’ The all and the all within it reside inescapably upon the moral substrate—the forum of purpose and action, which we call law.
Therefore, because the scope of law is universal, the scope of moral polarity is also universal, for that which adheres to the flow of divine advection is moral and that which seeks to redirect or assert its own course-making is reprobate. To those walking in the mystical way the Enneagram, with its numerology and sacred geometry, if it possesses any beneficial capacity, can only be described as either that from which the dusts of time have been carefully brushed away—a divine mystery which God buried from universal primordium and now revealed—or a diagram of inspired ingenuity fashioned to elucidate that mystery. All other options, including that the Enneagram is a mere tool, render the Enneagram not only utterly paralogical and vapid but also wayward and immoral.
Consider that the mystical way—and for that matter any particular way—has as its rhetorical and mythical roots the more fundamental notion of “The Way,” a deontic path which motivates the rhythms and cycles of the adherent’s life and which not only imprints its interior and hidden realities upon the psyche but in all practical senses is the constitution of its practice. Critical to the biblical way (in so much as the biblical way remains pertinent to the mystic) is that it is straight, restrained, and lawful, standing in opposition to the divergent way, which leads to confusion and chaos. For the Christian mystic the mystical way must also be the biblical way, however esoterically it might be established, because without Scripture Christianity is without definition, an orphan, and an historical anachronism. “The Way” is utter dependence upon God—His love and life; the countervailing way is the individual’s utter independence from God.
Additionally, mysticism’s pre-logical foundation is the awakening of the self to the reality of the imprint or even presence of God in all things—a principle which likewise characterized the Medieval-mind. The claim, therefore, that the Enneagram is morally neutral—a utility that could upon occasion be used for good or evil—stands not only in philosophical opposition to the Medieval-mind (a point which is tolerable to the fideistic mystic) but also stands in essential conflict with the mystical way (which ought not be tolerable to any mystic). The mystic has ostensibly placed or is moving toward placing his or her full confidence in the love of God, and any instrument—including the Enneagram—with the power to guide him or her to that perfect embrace must be an essential and supernal structure against which there is no law. The intractability of the mystical way and the idea of the presumed moral neutrality of the Enneagram is catastrophic because to attempt to adhere to both in one motion undermines mysticism’s claims to essentialism and initializes a cascading breakdown of core integrities. The mystic, therefore, has available only one trade to make without rejecting his or her own Holy Scriptures: either the Enneagram is sacred and morally pristine—upright, lawful, and affirming—or it is anathema. Neutrality, from the mystical point of view, is not an option, for a creation infused with purpose from the moment that moments were birthed has no room for stochastic phenomena. In other words, the mystical world has no morally neutral physical or philosophical objects.
What then of a subtler and what some might consider a more illuminated and Eastern intuition within which the Enneagram might ultimately be regarded as not so much neutral as it is non-dual? Without additionally belaboring the topic, little contextual evidence exists which might support the idea that those who appeal to the moral neutrality of the Enneagram do so with the aim of conveying non-dual interpretations. This fact, perhaps, is fortunate because the error of moral neutrality is not diminished but magnified within a non-dual context. For non-duality is an altogether tertiary sense of perception in which the relationship between subject and object breaks down. The Enneagram by design tends toward reductionism: setting boundaries, identifying types, differentiating between parts. Non-dual states of mind conceive not of tools, instraments, or pathways, nor does it allow for concepts like progress or change or growth. The domain of non-dual consciousness has no part in the domain of temporal happenings. If proponents might forward any non-dual argument with regard to the Enneagram it is that the Enneagram might aid in leading the practitioner to a place where God might grant him or her a non-dual state of consciousness, not that the Enneagram is ontologically or even epistemically non-dual. The appeal to non-duality is likely unprofitable.
What remains, therefore, if the Christian mystic wishes to affirm the practice of the Enneagram, is only that upon occasion the sacred Enneagram might be perverted—changed in subtle and either ignorant or devious ways—so that it might be used for corrupt purposes or intents, not that it is morally neutral and available for good or evil ends. In this way and under these circumstances, however, the Enneagram struggles mightily, for the Enneagram has no authoritative texts, no canonized scripture, no objective standards, no codified interpretive practices, no demarcations to establish the boundaries of what the Enneagram is and what it is not. If the Enneagram can be anything, it cannot be declared to be anything in particular. A philosophy and practice which is utterly amorphous and changes with the ebb and flow of the breeze cannot be perverted or righteously practiced. The sacredness or profanity of the Enneagram cannot, therefore, be established intrinsically, and one is left searching for an extrensic source. Here the Bible is of little use; and where the Scriptures do bear on the Enneagram, they lead one to approach such instruments cautiously. Consequently, the Christian mystic and follower of the spiritual formation movement faces what seems an impassable quandary; on the one hand the person who wishes to incorporate the Enneagram must declare it to be sacred and, on the other hand, cannot with credibility declare the Enneagram to be sacred.
To summarize, Christian mystical thought and experience is predicated upon the reality that the presence of God is all around us—that His power and Godhead can be seen recapitulated, as it were, fractally throughout all of creation. God has intractably infused the physical and broadly metaphysical universe with His divine meaning, purpose, and value. Existential and non-corporeal reality, therefore, resides within a deontic landscape, which each person must approach with moral integrity, humility, and righteousness. This kind of world is incompatible with morally neutral objects and concepts—only sacred and profane objects and concepts. The Christian mystic and spiritual formation proponent must, therefore, declare the Enneagram sacred or reprobate. If the Enneagram as a unified system with the ostensible power to guide the traveler to wholeness and union with God turns out to be reprobate, surely, it must be abandoned. If, on the other hand, one declares the Enneagram sacred, all of the Christian mystic’s work lies ahead, for even that which is sacred can be perverted and become profane. However, if no boundary conditions exist by which one can define what is definitively Enneagrammatic, how can one define what is proper or improper? Sacredness sets the boundaries of profanity. If the Enneagram has nebulous or permeable boundaries, it can neither be sacred or for that matter biblical. Consequently, the Enneagram is perilously positioned and ought to be approached with tremendous skepticism, as something with powerful and destructive capabilities, and not at all casually. This is particularly true when we consider that nothing in the Bible provides any evidence that the follower of Christ might be made complete and equipped for every good work through foreign “sacred” philosophies. Quite to the contrary, the Bible is absolutely clear when it declares in 2 Timothy 3:16-17 that the Scriptures themselves and not the Enneagram are God-breathed:
“All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”
- Adahan, Miriam. Awareness: The Key to Acceptance, Respect, Forgiveness, and Growth. Feldheim Publishers. p52.