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The Origins of the Enneagram

Dale Johnson: This week for a second time, I am bringing Dr. Rhenn Cherry to visit us on the podcast to talk about this important subject that is sweeping across Christian evangelicalism in the church—the Enneagram. Rhenn is our Director of Finances and Donor Relations, and he’s an Adjunct Professor of Biblical Counseling at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. I’ll remind you that he’s married to Terry, his wife, and he has two grown children—Jack is in Aggieland; he’s a Texas A&M Aggie. I almost hate to say that, but I love Jack so I’ll say that. And his daughter Carly, who’s married to Daniel. So he’s inherited a son-in-law as well, and it’s a wonderful thing. I love to to hang out with his family as well. 

Today, we’re going to dive in. I want to get right into this. As I mentioned last time, this is going to be just informative, I pray, and give you some background and understanding and probably dive a little bit deeper than you ever would have considered or wanted to, but I think this information is very helpful to consider the Enneagram properly.

It should raise some questions as we get into this: Why are we so infatuated with this personality typology within Christian evangelicalism? It does raise the question, and I can’t wait for you to hear some of the information. Rhenn and I’ve had some unbelievable conversations—I was his PhD supervisor. We’ve been talking about this for several years, and I’m just delighted that we finally come to a place where we can let you guys in on some of that conversation that we had. This is the product of a lot of those conversations and I’m excited that we’re at this point. Without further delay, we need to get into some of this information. Rhenn, I want us to talk today about where it came from. What in the world is the Enneagram and where in the world did it come from? So let’s start with that question. What exactly is the Enneagram?

Rhenn Cherry: For a proper explanation of the Enneagram, you first have to make a distinction between the symbol and the personality typology. The word itself is formed from the Greek words “ennea,” which means nine, and “gramma,” which means that which is drawn. There have been various 9-pointed symbols in existence throughout history, but the symbol that is currently identified as the 9-point Enneagram was brought to the Western world by a mystic named G.I. Gurdjieff in the early 1900s. Few people would dispute that he’s credited with bringing the symbol to the Western world. For those who don’t know, let’s not skip over this word mystic. It’s someone who claims two main things: First, a mystic claims to have attained a level of divine insight or understanding that transcends ordinary human knowledge.

Dale Johnson: That sounds kind of familiar even to gnosticism, which if your pastor has ever preached through the book of Colossians or something like that, you’re familiar with some of these ideas. It’s sort of inside knowledge or “aha moments” that we have from the inside and it’s knowledge that certain people might be privy to, but others may not be privy to. 

Rhenn Cherry: So the claim of a mystic would not end there. The second main claim that a mystic would make is that they communicate directly with the Divine or God, and eventually become one with God. G.I. Gurdjieff was a mystic who supposedly learned of the Enneagram while in the Middle East. But Gurdjieff did not apply the Enneagram to personality. Instead, he taught the Enneagram in secret and maintained that it gave him and his students an understanding of all things. That’s the symbol. Most of the debate has been about the origin of the symbol and what it was used for. 

Dale Johnson: Before we go any further, let’s talk about the 9-pointed symbol. That’s what most people may be familiar with—this at 9-pointed symbol and how it became associated with different personality types. Give us some insight on that. 

Rhenn Cherry: The origin of the personality typology that is now so closely associated with the Enneagram symbol can really be traced back to two men—a Bolivian named Oscar Ichazo, and a Chilean named Claudio Naranjo. During the 1960s and 1970s, Naranjo was a psychiatrist who trained during under Fritz Perls. Some of our listeners would recognize Fritz Perls as the originator and developer of Gestalt therapy. This is significant because a basic assumption of Gestalt therapy is that people can self-regulate themselves when they become self-aware and other-aware. So this helps them understand what’s happening in and around them. I cannot overstate the connection of self-mastery and self-knowledge in the development of the Enneagram. Claudio Naranjo took nine personality types that he developed in conjunction with Oscar Ichazo and overlaid them onto the 9-pointed symbol that Gurdjieff had brought to the Western culture. Then Naranjo began teaching what he termed “Ennea-types” to Jesuit priests in the 1970s in Berkeley, California. In fact, Naranjo who wrote a book titled Ennea-type Structures: Self-Analysis for the Seeker. This book was really a transcription of cassette tapes of his teachings on the nine categories of neurosis that he had overlaid onto the symbol.

Dale Johnson: This is so important when we’re critiquing something is to understand the history of it, because one of the things we cannot miss in what you just said, Rhenn, that I think is so important is they’re talking about self-awareness or other awareness. That takes some sort of knowledge to be self-aware and they’re claiming that this happens outside of a Christian system, even though somehow we’re using it now in a Christian system. It’s interesting to me, in biblical counseling when we talk about how these other systems of secular psychology and secular psychiatry are hijacking a biblical view of sanctification, or in this case, they’re hijacking a biblical view of the work of the Holy Spirit.

This is where Dr. Adams started in the 1970s, where he recognized that we are missing the role of the Holy Spirit. This is exactly what you’re describing here. They are building a system that helps us to understand ourselves know ourselves, become more familiar with ourselves in an explanatory details and labels as you described, that’s outside of the work of the Holy Spirit. To be Christian, we have to be very cautious because it’s redefining the work that the Bible clearly says is the role of the Holy Spirit to do in a person’s life. As you describe this, what I’m hearing is purely secular psychology, even a little bit of the history of psychiatry come out.

How did this symbol in typology make its way into Christian institutions and Christian churches? We start with mystic influence coming out of the Middle East and then a couple of guys start to overlay their Gestalt therapy and some of their own ideas about personality types that they call the Ennea-types. That doesn’t seem like it should be on the top shelf for churches, right? So how in the world did this get into the hands of churches and institutions? 

Rhenn Cherry: Jesuit priests that Claudio Naranjo personally taught began using the Enneagram personality typology at their own spiritual retreats in the late 1970s. Now again, Naranjo instructed them that this was to be secretive and nothing was to come out of those meetings in written form, certainly. But among the Catholic priests that were being taught this personality typology were two particular Jesuit priests—namely Don Riso and Father Richard Rohr. They both began writing on the Enneagram. Riso really went more in the direction of developing online Enneagram-type testing, while Rohr wrote a book called Discovering the Enneagram: An Ancient Tool for a New Spiritual Journey in 1989. Now we see this progression of Catholic priests embracing the Enneagram and spiritualizing this secular personality typology. It is interesting that Richard Rohr would eventually re-title his original Enneagram book 20 years later as The Enneagram: A Christian Perspective.

Dale Johnson: That’s important because he wrote a book previously, and you’re saying it’s basically the same information just reworked. Is that what you’re describing? 

Rhenn Cherry: Yeah, part of his motivation that he stated is that he became convinced that the Enneagram had Christian roots and so he wanted to retitle the book to reflect that. We now see how a clear path was cut that enabled a secular, non-Christian personality typology to be labeled as spiritual. In this retitled Enneagram work, Rohr himself claimed that the Enneagram had Christian roots.

Dale Johnson: That’s super interesting and hopefully you’re tracking with us here. What I find so interesting about that is where this came from. If we describe ourselves as being people of the Book, people of the Bible, we see these parts missing. Essentially what Rohr is trying to describe is that these personality types, he begins to reflect in some way in the Christian world view. But as you mentioned it came out of non-Christian personality typology, and that is troublesome. Why do the Enneagram works of a Catholic priest matter so much to modern evangelicals today? 

Rhenn Cherry: Here is why Richard Rohr is important in all of this. He personally taught and mentored Ian Cron and Suzanne Stabile who wrote The Road Back to You, and he also personally mentored Christopher Heuertz who wrote The Scared Enneagram. These authors dedicated their books to Richard Rohr, they quote him extensively throughout, and they consider him the theologian of the Enneagram system. These Enneagram books have been wildly popular among evangelical Christians.

Dale Johnson: What you’re saying is that these authors have helped to make it wildly popular among evangelicals. 

Rhenn Cherry: So much so that it’s even been labeled as a Christian tool. I think it’s important here to define some terms, namely evangelical. The secular world tends to broadly group religions that have some place for Jesus as “Christian.” But evangelical Christianity is distinct from other religions as it relates to the salvation of man. First, Evangelicalism maintains salvation involves repentance of a life of sin against the holy God and saving faith in the person and the work of Christ alone. There’s no other means available and there’s no other means required for man to be reconciled to his Creator. Now, Richard Rohr, he would not label himself as an Evangelical Christian, but because Rohr has so strongly influenced Enneagram authors that are so popular among evangelicals, the Enneagram (at least as Evangelicals know it) is inextricably linked to the theology of the man Richard Rohr.

Dale Johnson: It’s been labeled as a Christian tool and it’s being popularized in a lot different places—institutions and churches that even claim more conservative theology, and that’s interesting. The history doesn’t necessarily rule it out, right? But there are some things we have to consider. What should Christians think about this idea of the Enneagram and it’s typologies. I mean, what’s the big deal? Should we consider using it? Is it something that we should discard all together? I mean, how are we to think about this as Christians?

Rhenn Cherry: Discerning Christians should think about the Enneagram just like they do about any theory, practice, system, or teaching that they encounter. We must ask, what does this system say about God, about man, about sin, and about salvation? In other words, what is the problem, and what is the solution, according to this system or “tool?” How does the theology and anthropology of any teaching or system compare to the truth of the Bible? We must train ourselves to ask these types of questions of everything.

And so, if we are going to give fair analysis of this personality typology called the Enneagram, we must examine the theology of Richard Rohr and other Enneagram authors that he has influenced. This is important because Rohr has personally mentored and influenced the specific Enneagram authors who are most popular among evangelical Christians today.

Many Christians, pastors in particular, have not been able to take the time to investigate the underlying theology and anthropology of the Enneagram. They haven’t done their own due diligence on the Enneagram subculture that has now developed in many of their churches. And now many pastors find that there are people who are in their congregations who are quite taken with the Enneagram system, and those pastors honestly don’t know what to do. They don’t know what to make of this personality typology. 

I was able to spend time investigating the theology of Richard Rohr as well as the Enneagram authors that he’s influenced—namely Suzanne Stabile, Ian Cron, and Christopher Heuertz.

My research revealed several points of theological and anthropological concern. You see these two things—a doctrine of God and a doctrine of man are always connected to each other. 

Dale Johnson: Yeah, these are the non-negotiable things, right? I mean, we can’t employ systems and it be utilized in a Christian perspective that are distinctly different and promote something different than our non-negotiable doctrines from the Scripture—a doctrine of man very clearly or a doctrine of God and who He is. But I understand we’ve been influenced by pragmatism, right? And so we have the tendency to just sort of invite these things in if we think they’re “useful.” But we can never disconnect theology and practice. What we practice holds some sort of theological implication behind it. And this is a part of what you’re trying to describe. 

If Richard Rohr is credited as being this Enneagram theologian does he have specific views on God? That’s important for us to understand because he’s promoting these ideas from that perspective. He’s called the Theologian of the Enneagram. Are you just making some wild inferences about his theology? Tell us why that’s important.

Rhenn Cherry:  Richard Rohr is quite clear about his view on God. He unashamedly holds to a panentheistic theology. In fact, he goes out of his way to make sure that he is not confused with being a pantheist.

Dale Johnson: Alright, pantheist and panentheistic theology—those were two big words. I think we need to pause for a second and just say what in the world do we mean by a panentheism? And what’s the difference between that and pantheism?

Rhenn Cherry: Richard Rohr explicitly states in his 2019 New York Times bestseller, The Universal Christ, that he is a pan-en-theist. That is, he maintains and defends a theology that God is in everything. That’s panentheism. He’s careful to distinguish his panentheism from pantheism, which maintains that God is everything, or that everything is God. 

Rohr maintains that God is in everything, but that God is also outside of all things. That is, He’s in the rocks, moon, you, me, your pet, your coffee, and so on. This theology matters because, according to Rohr, everything is divine in nature. There is no need for redemption because everything is already divine. Again, these are not mere conclusions that one draws from reading Rohr. These are explicitly stated claims that he himself makes.

But Rohr’s theology is in direct conflict with an orthodox evangelical doctrine of God. We see clearly in the Bible that God is holy. He is distinctly set apart from His creation. God alone is God. The Triune God of the Bible shares His divinity with no one or no thing. We see that at its most basic level, Richard Rohr’s theological teaching is contradicted by Scripture.

Dale Johnson: Okay, wow. We’re asking our people today to put on their thinking cap, no doubt, but this is how we have to be good discerners of the systems that we try to employ or that we consider. As we go further, does Rohr have some type of explanation for how he thinks God came to dwell in all things? Because that’s an important piece of the puzzle as well. 

Rhenn Cherry: Yes, Richard Rohr teaches that the first of several incarnations occurred at creation. According to Rohr, God entered into all of creation at the very event of creation. In support of Rohr’s theology, this first incarnation provided the event that Rohr’s panentheism requires in order for God to enter into all of creation. Is this interesting or alarming to anybody besides me? But what does the Bible teach? Well first, we should define incarnation consistent with orthodox Evangelical theology. Incarnation can be defined as the act in which the Son of God added humanity to His deity and continues to be God and man in two distinct nature’s and one person. Scripture testifies that the incarnation occurred only once, and that the incarnation was exclusive to the man Jesus of Nazareth. Very clearly, Rohr’s Enneagram theology is in direct conflict with Scripture. It is not biblical.

Dale Johnson: Now, we’re running out of time today and I hope this is is interesting to you as it is to me because we need to understand these things very clearly. These are things that we are adopting—these personality types—into our churches, into our institutions, and they have troublesome background for us to consider. We need to pause for a moment and take a breath and understand these issues. 

I love what you’re doing here, Rhenn, you’re giving exactly what Rohr states, his own personal theology and view of man. And then you’re helping us to see biblically that those things cannot be true and the Bible also be true at the same time. They’re not complementary. It’s not supportive. It has a different goal. I don’t want our discussion to end here, and so I want to make sure that you are available. We will do a third podcast talking about this very important subject of the Enneagram. We’ll continue our discussion about Richard Rohr and his views of Scripture and then we’ll talk a little bit more specifically about a theological appraisal of this personality type of the Enneagram that I think you should be aware of.

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