Religious Accusations Against the Enneagram Proven False
The Enneagram is a system of nine personality types that has been growing in popularity since the early 1970s. Each of the types is associated with one of nine core “passions.” Sometimes called ego-fixations or compulsions, these nine negative emotional states are anger, pride, deceit, envy, greed, fear, gluttony, lust, and laziness. This list largely depends on the tradition of “capital sins” in Christianity, although the Enneagram interprets them psychologically, not moralistically.
The Enneagram describes the nine personality types as patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving. By revealing these patterns clearly, the Enneagram is used to guide people in overcoming weaknesses and capitalizing on strengths, to understand and develop compassion in relationships of all kinds, and to understand oneself in one’s own personal growth and relationship to God.
Catholic theologian Mitchell Pacwa, S. J. wrote extensively during the early 1990s on his interpretation of the Enneagram and how, like Jungian psychology, he believes it is misleading Christians in their search for spiritual direction. His two main statements are an article on the Internet, “Tell Me Who I Am, O Enneagram,” (copyright 1994, Christian Research Institute) and his book Catholics and the New Age (Servant Publications, 1992). He continues to present his ideas on Catholic conservative radio and TV shows.
In mid-2000, the U.S. Catholic bishops’ committee on doctrine issued a document on the Enneagram based on Pacwa’s ideas. It cautions bishops that “the Enneagram has its origins in a non-Christian world view and remains connected to a complex of philosophical and religious ideas that do not accord with Christian beliefs.”
Our Response to Pacwa’s Criticism of the Enneagram
This article is our response to these unfortunate interpretations of the Enneagram. We call these documents “unfortunate” because our own research clearly indicates that the Enneagram has solid roots in the Christian writings of the “desert elders.” These men and women, sometimes called the Fathers and Mothers of the Church, lived and wrote in the first five centuries of Christianity. As the first interpreters of the Gospels, they inquired into the inner development of human nature as it progresses toward the experience of God.
Thus, we believe that Pacwa, with the U. S. bishops following him, is placing himself in the strange-but-true situation of encouraging Christians to be suspicious of authentic Christian teaching about the inner life because it appears in a form with which he is unfamiliar and therefore cannot immediately recognize as Christian.
The confusion these documents creates is compounded by the fact that none of them demonstrates an accurate understanding of the Enneagram. Because Pacwa’s article available on the Internet both summarizes his book and is the source document for the bishops’s statement, we will deal with it directly in this response.
False Accusation of Numerology
Pacwa’s document is marred by several erroneous assumptions. For example, it claims that the Enneagram depends on numerology and therefore calls it “divination.” However, the Enneagram uses numbers, not numerology. The dictionary defines numerology as “the study of the occult meanings of numbers and their supposed influence on human life.” Numerology assigns numbers to the letters of the alphabet and offers guidance to people based on the number equivalence of the letters in their names and their date of birth.
Pacwa also claims that the numerology of the Enneagram is based on the search for the “mystical meanings” of recurring decimal numbers. This statement is misleading in two ways. First, possible mystical meanings of numbers is not the same as numerology. Second, the Enneagram of personality as taught today relies on no such numerical mysticism. It simply uses the numbers one through nine. This is not numerology, just as arithmetic is not numerology.
False Presentation of “Essence” and “Personality”
Pacwa denigrates another teaching basic to the Enneagram, essence and personality, by calling it “pantheistic.” The Enneagram claims to describe personality, which perceives reality in an overly subjective manner, and is opposed to essence or a person’s true nature.
In criticizing this idea, Pacwa is apparently oblivious to the Christian origin of the word “essence” in this context. It was first used in the 1330s by Gregory Palamas, a canonized saint in the Orthodox tradition. He explained the nature of God as “essence” and “energies,” or the means by which God communicates with humanity. Since humanity is created in God’s image, this teaching evolved to say every human being also has an “essence” or soul and “energies” or personality.
Alleged Occult Basis of the Enneagram
Pacwa says the Enneagram has origins in the occult, which most people associate with magic and human use of spiritual powers not lawful to them. However, the ideas that underlay the Enneagram have esoteric origins, not occult ones.
For most people, the word “esoteric” is equivalent to “occult.” In fact, religious traditions use this word in its most basic definition, which is “inner” or “interior.” Esoteric principles teach the inner development of humanity as it yearns for the divine. Spiritual growth, contemplative prayer and the writings of mystics like Hildegard of Bingen, Julian of Norwich, Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross are all “esoteric.”
Alleged Sufi Basis for the Enneagram
Pacwa claims the Enneagram comes from the Sufis (who teach contemplative spirituality in the Islamic world). Many Enneagram teachers (including ourselves) used to present this erroneous idea. But how could the underlying ideas of the Enneagram be Sufi when the Sufis themselves disavow this claim? To be sure, there are Sufi books on the Enneagram (for example, Laleh Bakhtiar’s three volume work, God’s Will Be Done (KAZI Publications, 1993 and 1994)), but the way they both describe and use the Enneagram barely resembles the presentation of the Enneagram Pacwa refers to.
Pacwa states the nine types of the Enneagram fall into three groups of three, associated with the head, the heart, and the gut (often called “the three centers”). Then he claims these three categories of intellectual, emotional and instinctual are borrowed from Sufism.
Yet Plato also taught such a tri-partite analysis of human nature (for example, see his Timaeus). So did the Christian desert elders when they called Christians to three renunciations — in the physical realm (simplicity), emotional realm (virtue rather than the passions), and intellectual realm (relying on divine and not human knowledge to lead a person to God).
Common sense leads to the same conclusion. Each day, when faced with decisions, people ask themselves, “What do I think about it?”, “How do I feel about it?”, and “What will I do about it?” These are universal categories. They don’t belong to any one religion or philosophy. Further, although they are given different names and appear in many different forms, they are almost universally used by the world’s religions and philosophies.
Because he wrongly believes the idea of the three centers is Sufi, Pacwa takes exception to the idea that imbalance among the three centers is one of humanity’s basic problems and therefore that balancing the centers is important spiritual work for everyone to do. Yet this was also Plato’s idea and the Christian desert elders built upon it, saying that when head, heart and body are balanced, people can more clearly hear God and more authentically fulfill God’s will. It also makes common sense that when we learn to think when thinking is appropriate, feel when feeling is appropriate, and act when action is appropriate, we live more whole, wholesome and holy lives.
The Ideas of G. I. Gurdjieff
Pacwa claims that the Enneagram is unreliable because it comes in part from the teaching of George I. Gurdjieff. However, it’s Pacwa’s tactic here itself that is unreliable: guilt by association. One does not authentically judge an idea as good or bad by its association with people, but on the merits of the idea itself. (Pacwa uses the same false argument regarding Oscar Ichazo’s association with the Enneagram; we will deal with Ichazo in a later section of this article.)
By giving only the kind of information about Gurdjieff that causes alarm but not balanced enough to allow readers to decide for themselves what kind of man Gurdjieff was, Pacwa relies on the dishonorable tactic of ad hominem argument, better known today as character assassination.
For example, Pacwa claims that Gurdjieff “rejected” the Orthodox faith in which he had been brought up to explore the occult. If Gurdjieff rejected his faith as taught to him in the Orthodox church, then why do Gurdjieff’s ideas dovetail with the Orthodox monastic tradition on almost every major point?
Whether you read the writings of contemporary monks and hermits from Mt. Athos (for example, Orthodox Psychotherapy: The Science of the Fathers (Birth of the Theotokos Monastery, 1994) by Metropolitan of Nafpaktos Hierotheos), modern western interpreters of the tradition like the Englishman Robin Amis (A Different Christianity, Praxis Institute, 1995) or primary sources like Gregory of Nyssa and Evagrius Ponticus, you see that the majority of Gurdjieff’s ideas, images, principles and practices come from the Orthodox monastic tradition. This includes the helplessness of humanity to experience spiritual growth without grace, which Gurdjieff called “higher influence”! Gurdjieff’s main contribution to this tradition was to modernize its language.
Pacwa also says that Gurdjieff eventually settled in Paris, where he taught “esoteric Christianity.” However, that phrase doesn’t pique any interest and he moves on to report Gurdjieff’s other sophisticated beliefs out of context. Esoteric Christianity is the Christian teaching about the inner development of humanity toward the divine, and it definitely was Gurdjieff’s topic.
Gurdjieff had his shortcomings as all people do, and Gurdjieff did study all the world’s religions and philosophies as extensively as he could to find principles and practices that promote humanity’s inner development. However, by translating a basically Christian Orthodox theology into terms free from religious pietism, Gurdjieff can be seen as an innovative evangelist, not the purveyor of dangerous non-Christian beliefs as Pacwa states.
A Strange Misunderstanding of Christian Faith
Possibly the most telling statement Pacwa makes is on the nature of Christian faith itself. He says that Gurdjieff taught
faith arose “from understanding” which is “the essence obtained from information intentionally learned and from all kinds of experiences personally experienced.” Only understanding can lead one to God and only experience and information allow one to acquire a soul. This approach to faith places Gurdjieff squarely in the Gnostic camp outside Christianity. For Christians, faith is a gift from God; it is available to the brilliant or retarded, the aged or the child, independent of whether a human understands or not. Instead of human understanding leading to God, it is God who comes to humans, offering to dwell within our hearts through Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.
In this paragraph, Pacwa demonstrates a misunderstanding of many things. Most important, he does not comprehend what Gurdjieff means by “understanding.” Stated in its simplest way, understanding in this context is knowledge that is personally experienced; this is the teaching of the desert elders, who also definitely said understanding is the only road to Christian faith. Contemporary Christianity phrases it differently by delineating a difference between knowing about God and knowing God. Knowing about God is theology; knowing God is faith, and knowing God is an experience a person has.
Pacwa seems to be caught in an intellectualized idea of faith — perhaps faith as a set of beliefs, or as assent to certain truths — when he says it is “independent of whether a human understands or not.” For Pacwa, understanding is intellectual understanding.
Gurdjieff, on the other hand, is teaching the tradition from the desert elders: faith happens when you personally experience the God you are taught about. Indeed, this is also the very meaning of the formula used by Pacwa himself when he says God offers “to dwell within our hearts through Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.” What does “through Jesus Christ” and “by the power of the Holy Spirit” mean except that Christians experience God personally in their hearts?
Thus, the real meaning of Pacwa’s statement is that Gurdjieff taught the core meaning of faith as described by the desert elders, but then he confuses the issue by misinterpreting the meaning of the word understanding.
He further diverges from an accurate portrayal of Gurdjieff’s teaching by claiming Gurdjieff taught “. . . only experience and information allow one to acquire a soul.” Gurdjieff spoke of understanding as defined by the desert elders above, not information. Further, he didn’t say that we “acquire” a soul but rather that all people are created with a soul “in embryo” which they themselves had to develop. While Gurdjieff’s language may shock us with its originality of phrasing (Is that such a bad thing in itself, or does it make us think in a new way about a familiar truth?), his idea is not dissimilar to traditional Christianity’s goal of “growing in virtue” or “becoming more like Christ” in one’s spiritual life.
Oscar Ichazo’s Influence on the Enneagram
Pacwa deals with Oscar Ichazo in a similar fashion to the way he treats Gurdjieff. A South American seeker, Ichazo’s main contribution to the Enneagram of personality was to accurately lay the nine passions (listed in Christian tradition by the desert father Evagrius Ponticus) around the Enneagram symbol, a nine-pointed star in a circle probably first drawn by Pythagoras. Thus, he created a map for understanding how human beings lose their way to God and find it again.
Ichazo’s particular genius lay in his insight that, of the nine passions described in classical literature (listed above), one is laid as the foundation of the personality. All of them are temptations for everyone, but one creates a veil of illusion that distorts a person’s perception of reality and thus unconsciously misguides his or her thinking, feeling and behaving. Consequently, it misguides a person’s quest for healthy relationships with self, others, the world and God.
However, modern Enneagram books and seminars have little in common with Ichazo’s original work beyond this basic point. Ichazo teaches a complicated set of principles and practices reserved only to the members of his “Arica School”; therefore, these teachings do not affect the modern Enneagram.
Further, if you read Ichazo’s descriptions of the nine personality types themselves and compare them to contemporary Enneagram books, you see very little agreement. That’s because for the past 30 years, the Enneagram has been exposed to hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of people who have refined and reshaped the description of the types from their own experience. The modern Enneagram of personality owes its inception to Ichazo but has moved beyond him.
Ichazo holds many ideas that would be considered odd or strange by the average person and teaches beliefs contrary to his Christian upbringing. However, none of these ideas or beliefs have anything to do with the Enneagram as it is presented today by most teachers of the system.
Pacwa’s Misunderstanding of Theological Problems and the Enneagram
Pacwa wrongly accuses the Enneagram of presenting errors according to Christian theology. We wish to list these accusations and deal with each as concisely as possible. It should be noted that many of Pacwa’s accusations are “straw man” arguments; the tactic is to misrepresent an idea by weakening it, then to destroy the weakened argument. Jesuit education (which both Mitchell Pacwa and Theodorre Donson received) teaches clearly that guilt by association, straw man and ad hominem arguments are false, misleading and to be avoided.
Pacwa insists the Enneagram has occult origins. Because Gurdjieff and Ichazo have done some things Pacwa disapproves of, he makes the leap that these practices affect their teaching. This assertion has no basis in fact. Further, the Enneagram as taught today was never taught by Gurdjieff; Ichazo created the basic idea but modern teachers are now so far from his teaching he himself complains about it. There is no occultism in the Enneagram teaching of prominent leaders in the field.
Pacwa says “some Enneagram experts claim that original sin begins when small children choose their Enneagram type.” Then he launches into how this idea violates Christian doctrine on original sin. First, some Enneagram experts may teach this idea, but not many. Surely, we don’t. It is a speculation for which there can be no proof, so it is not good teaching. Also, few Enneagram presenters teach that people “choose” their type. Again, there is speculation on how we become the type we are, but none of these ideas can be proved.
Pacwa claims it is erroneous to believe that “humans can undo the effects of this so-called original sin of ego fixation by means of . . . spiritual ‘work.’” The core issue of each type is alternatively called a passion, an ego-fixation, a compulsion, and a psychological addiction to a point of view. No Enneagram teacher we are aware of identifies this aspect of the Enneagram with the Christian concept of “original sin.” Then Pacwa states that “such ‘work’ (to deal with the passion) can never be the removal of original sin,” which is a very different statement than his first statement about undoing the effects of sin. In his own confusion, he confuses the reader. Further, along the way he denigrates the value of spiritual “work,” which the desert elders teach is the very heart of Christian spirituality. They say that dealing with the passions (as named by the Enneagram) is humanity’s most important spiritual work because through it people clarify their souls so that they can progress in understanding the communication of God to humans.
Pacwa states, “Another theological error is the claim that Jesus our Lord possesses the virtues of all nine types within Himself.” We are aware of only one small book and one chapter in another book that use this idea. It is not an important part of anyone’s teaching on the Enneagram of which we are aware. Making as much of this idea as Pacwa does is the equivalent of throwing a red herring into the discussion.
Pacwa disagrees that there are “nine faces of God” of which each Enneagram type is a distortion. He claims “God does not have nine faces. . . . [T]here are three coequal persons in the one God [and] these three persons are neither multiplying nor subdividing into nine faces.” Pacwa apparently does not know that the source of this image of the “nine faces of God” is the mystical Hebrew teaching called the Kabbalah. The Christian perspective of which we are aware both respects its Jewish roots and respects the Jewish faith as a sister faith to Christianity. Also, the word “faces” is a metaphor for “attributes.” These terms are used interchangeably in the Kabbalah. Thus, the Enneagram relies on ancient Kabbalistic tradition for saying there are nine faces of God. We will deal with Pacwa’s problem with distorting the face of God in the next point.
Pacwa says that God is sovereign and no one can distort the face of God. However, Christianity teaches that humanity is made in the image and likeness of God. Orthodox Christian theology says that in Adam and Eve’s fall from Eden humanity retained God’s image but the likeness was distorted. This is the teaching to which Pacwa, a Christian theologian, inexplicably objects. In the language of Christian theology, the Enneagram says that every human being is created to live out an attribute of God in the world, but due to the sinfulness of humanity that attribute becomes distorted by egocentricity into a passion or compulsion. The Christian journey is to regain this lost attribute and thus to “share the life of Christ” with the world.
Pacwa objects to saying that the distorted face of God is a demon, as do some Enneagram teachers, and says doing so “moves beyond absurdity to blasphemy”; he also says that “we humans cannot free ourselves from the demons; God delivers us from them.” Here Pacwa once again demonstrates his unfamiliarity with the teachings of the desert elders, the first Christian interpreters of the Gospels. Remember, a face of God is the same thing as an attribute of God (explained in point 5 above), which can also be called a virtue. The opposite of virtue is in contemporary language is vice; the desert elders called it a “passion.” They regularly referred to the passions as demons and interpreted the Gospel stories of Jesus casting out demons as instructions to Christians on how they should handle the passions when they experience them. Again we find Pacwa disagreeing with ancient Christian teaching because it appears in a form with which he is unfamiliar and which he has not sufficiently researched.
Pacwa claims that the “‘occultic’ Enneagram figure” (a nine-pointed star in a circle) has determined the idea that “only nine basic types exist.” He says there is no objective reason for this conclusion. However, in 1993 we the authors of this article wrote a book (My Best Self, Harper San Francisco) that explained why there are nine types. The explanation has to do with the three centers and how we use them to perceive reality and to respond to our perceptions in our daily lives. Groups of three types use one of the three centers as a lens through which to perceive reality. Other groups of three types use two of the three centers to figure out how they will respond to their perceptions. The result is a mathematical conclusion: three ways of perceiving reality times three ways of acting on our perceptions equals nine types. To explore this idea more completely, see our information on our website on Breakthrough Enneagram (r), or see our latest book, Discover Your Soul Potential.
Pacwa objects to practices such as assigning Enneagram types to public figures and using the Enneagram casually to type friends and family members leading to “the trivialization of relationships.” Here we are in agreement with Pacwa. People know their Enneagram type through self-awareness; no one can decide for you what type you are. Thus, the practice common to some Enneagram teachers of using public figures as examples of Enneagram types is dubious at best. What one knows about public figures is from a distance, unless they also happen to be personal friends or relatives. People assign them an Enneagram type from the outside, often by looking at only a few salient features they present to the world. Who but they and their personal associates know what they are really like? One might develop a personal opinion about another person’s Enneagram type, but only the person him- or herself knows for sure. People should confine expressing these opinions to their personal circle and not make them part of their public teaching. The case is similar with one’s family members and friends. All too often, people make judgments that so-and-so is this type or that type based on insufficient knowledge. However, just because the Enneagram can be misused in these ways doesn’t invalidate the entire system. Human knowledge will always be misused. For example, Christian theology has been used to justify the Crusades and the Inquisition; those justifications do not invalidate Christian theology. Rather, the people who created the justifications are judged by society and by history to have made a mistake and fallen short of their ideals.
The Enneagram in a Christian Context
Thus, we believe that the Enneagram is not only compatible with Christian beliefs, it actually has evolved from them. Further, it is based on human experience. While it has not been the subject of much strict modern scientific research, it has been exposed to and refined by the experience of thousands if not millions of people. Its authenticity comes from its accurate insight into human nature. This knowledge is helpful in self-understanding, which is the first step on the spiritual path according to many teachers of the spiritual life like Teresa of Avila. Therefore it supports healthy relationship with self, others, the world and God. That’s why spiritual directors and seekers are attracted to it.
The core teaching of the desert elders lies in the nine passions, the three centers, and the role of grace in the process of spiritual growth. An increasing number of Enneagram teachers, including ourselves, concentrate on these principles and eliminate unnecessary complications of the system like the “arrows” (to which Pacwa objects) and “wings.” In this format, the modern Enneagram provides a practical access to the earliest Christian teaching about the development of the human soul in its yearning for the divine.
In addition, acknowledging the weakness of desert elders’ severe attitude toward the body, we, along with other Enneagram teachers, have updated this spirituality with respect for the beauty and value of physical reality. In this context, the Enneagram is an accurate mirror and guide on that ultimate of Christian journeys, the journey of the human person to God.
© 2001, Enneagram Resources, Inc. All rights reserved.
By Kathy Hurley and Theodorre Donson