In the very first sentence of Calvin’s Institutes, he says, “Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.” He then confesses he isn’t sure which one of those comes first. He concludes that “no one can look upon himself without immediately turning his thoughts to the contemplation of God, in whom he “lives and moves.”For a few people I know, taking the Enneagram helped them express and explain themselves in a new way. It aided their self-discovery, and as Calvin suggests, is a way to turn our thoughts toward God.
This is a particularly interesting way to begin a systematic theology. And, it is perhaps a plot twist depending on your perspective on Calvin. While our focus in evangelicalism is often on knowing God through his Word, Calvin suggests there are other avenues. One of those, I think, is personality tests.
In particular, popular tests like the Enneagram and the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator have provided an opportunity for us to get to know ourselves, so to speak. Over the years, these tests have seen their share of attention, with the Enneagram getting the limelight this past year, and I recently encountered the Enneagram in a teacher training workshop.
As writers Ian Morgan Cron and Suzanne Stabile explain in The Road Back to You, their book on utilizing the Enneagram from a Christian perspective, the Enneagram is a “curious theory of unknown origins.” It has a fascinating backstory, but most people are interested in what the current form actually is. Cron and Stabile explain that:
“The Enneagram teaches that there are nine different personality styles in the world, one of which we naturally gravitate toward and adopt in childhood to cope and feel safe. Each type or number has a distinct way of seeing the world and an underlying motivation that powerfully influences how that type thinks, feels and behaves.”
These nine types can be further personalized by wing, stress, and security numbers, which are found by looking at the Enneagram chart that plots the numbers in relation to one another. A wing is a number to the right or the left of your number type, which colors the base number. As an example, I am a 1 wing 9, which, among other things, means I am a bit more introverted than a 1 wing 2. In addition, because I am a 1, when I am secure and emotionally healthy, I tend to take on characteristics of my security number, which is 7. On the other hand, when I’m not in a good place, I disintegrate toward my stress number which is a 4.
Without knowing what all these numbers mean, you might not completely follow the significance. On the other hand, if you’re familiar with the test already, you now know quite a bit about what I’m like in real life. Before I took the test, I knew most of what it revealed about myself, but it helped to give names and categories to certain patterns in my personal life. In the short time since I’ve taken the test, I’ve seen it useful for several others in their own path of self-discovery. For Christians, this is often not an end in itself, but is part of growing as persons made in the image of God and being conformed to the image of his Son.
Keeping this idea in mind, personality tests—to the extent that they help us understand ourselves better—can be appropriated and used on the path of wisdom. Our personalities are complex and varied, of course, and no one test can truly capture how fearfully and wonderfully made each of us is.
Having taught psychology as an elective for several years, I have a long history of giving these tests to students. This year I added the Enneagram, using it alongside the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and a test called Mindstyles. I now regularly administer these three in my classes. It is rare for students to score identically on all three tests. It has happened, usually to the bafflement of the students involved.
A big part of that is because these tests tend to measure the existential dimension of the person. By that I mean it measures how they tend to interact with their world. What it leaves out are the actual experiences that make up a person’s identity (i.e., memories and such). It also leaves out the beliefs and philosophical commitments that shape the way they see and think about the world. A person’s cultural taste is also missing in the equation.
The result is that people might score identically on multiple tests but still be noticeably (maybe even radically) different because of the different beliefs and experiences that make up their identity. When all of that is taken into account, we are probably talking about something more than mere personality, but still within the realm of personal identity, which is also a sticky concept.
What both tests have in common is that they are not strictly scientific. Because of that, it is perhaps easy for someone who doesn’t like them (or their result) to cast aspersions.
But these tests are popular for a reason. They often cohere with many people’s lived experience and are often accurate predictors of behavior. If they didn’t, they couldn’t be popular. And by noting that they cohere with people’s experience is to say they correspond to that person’s reality.
Often, tests like the Enneagram will correspond to a person’s reality in a way that previously defied description. For a few people I know, taking the Enneagram helped them express and explain themselves in a new way. It aided their self-discovery, and as Calvin suggests, is a way to turn our thoughts toward God.
To the extent that tests like this accomplish that goal, they should be used and enjoyed by those who experience them as a catalyst for growth on all fronts.