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By Chuck DeGroat
Have I told you about the ‘lost’ chapter in my 2014 book Toughest People to Love?
The book was originally nine chapters, but the publisher didn’t think my audience for the book would be ready to deal with the Enneagram. And if you press me on this, the answer is yes…I’m still a little bitter about it.
After all, it’s just three years later and the bookshelves are bursting with new Enneagram books. New works by Marilyn Vancil and Beatrice Chestnut and AJ Sherill and Iain Cron and Chris Huertz have led to podcasts and evangelical Enneagram retreats and nine-sided star tattoos on first-born evangelical children. It’s all the rage.
So, what is the fascination?
I’ve been pondering this lately. It’s an interesting and important question, in part because early Enneagram teachers dreaded this moment. You see, the Enneagram is a wisdom tool, not a personality test, and the first teachers thought it wise not to dispense it broadly in books and online tests (and eventually apps!), but through spiritual direction and smaller, relational contexts where relational and habitual energies could be better discerned. Among Christians, the first wave of Enneagram works by Palmer and Riso/Hudson and Rohr were not devoured by mainstream evangelicals, but by mystically-oriented Catholics. Another wave of works imagined the Enneagram’s use in spiritual disciplines not ordinarily practiced by evangelicals. In fact, many psychologists have been suspicious of it until more recent works by Daniels/Price and Chestnut, who is the best modern articulator of Chilean-born Enneagram “father” and psychiatrist, Claudio Naranjo, who some credit for bringing the Enneagram to the West. Which begs the question, why has a rather esoteric wisdom tool caught the imagination of Starbucks-consuming suburban evangelicals in 2017?
I do wonder if we’re living in a time when we’re more eager than ever to figure ourselves (and the people we love) out. While the first wave of Enneagram works emerged during the tense Cold War, we live today in a world far more inter-connected, when our global fragility is accessible in an instant by phone alert. We live anxiously awaiting the next international incident or natural disaster or political absurdity. We are corporately asking ourselves the question: Who are we?
I also wonder if our fascination with personality systems, whether the DISC or the Myers-Briggs or the Strengthsfinder or these awful Facebook personality tests, appeal to a need for personal certainty and stability. This is who I am. I am a relational/influential ENFJ Enneagram 3 or I’m a thinking/strategizing ISTJ Enneagram 5. I wonder if this gives us some armor when people come at us. This is just the way I am!
I’m not sure. In my own study of the Enneagram over 15+ years, I find myself more and more cautious with it. Even today, I’m re-thinking my own habitual energy given serious conversations with people who know me. Having been on a journey to “know myself” over two decades, I find myself more a mystery, as I continue to remain “hidden behind curtains of shame,” as Chrystostom said. Even in my marriage, it’s taken years and years to unravel the unique “dance of hiddenness” (as I like to call it) Sara and I do. And while it’s kind of fun to take a stab at “typing” someone – You’re such a 3 because you’re an achiever or you’re such an 8 because you’re angry, I find myself increasingly apt to say Slow waaaaay down…
All of that said, having read several of the books above, I think some of the best writing on the Enneagram is what you’ll find in these new works. Vancil’s book is a hidden treasure, and presents a wonderfully unique reflection on God’s character through each type. Sherrill’s helpful book is written by a pastor with an eye towards spiritual formation by someone deeply committed to embodying the ancient orthodox Christian tradition in meaningful formational practices. Chestnut works magic with the subtypes, and is the best current work on them. But I also look back to my chapter, and I find myself strangely grateful that a wise editor chose not to include it.
Back in 2014, I thought I “got it.” But today, I find myself with more questions, for me and for us. And I’m more convinced than ever that we need to sit with the questions rather than moving toward certainties and categories and boxes to put each other in.
And, although as a therapist I do psychological testing regularly and have an array of tools at my disposal to figure you and me out, I find myself more and more desiring to get to know you not through a tool or a test, but in a less hurried way, over lunches and coffees and maybe a Botanist up-with-a-twist, where mysteries are unraveled slowly in relationship, as stories are shared, tears are shed, and the shame and anxiety we live with today is brought into the light…
…and where the Spirit who “desires truth in the inward being, teaching me wisdom in my secret heart” slowly but surely burns away the thick layers of our illusory false selves in order to reveal our deepest beauty in Christ.
Chuck is Professor of Pastoral Care and Counseling at Western Theological Seminary and Senior Fellow with the Newbigin House of Studies.