It is easy to find descriptions of the Enneagram personality typing system that make no mention of its fascinating history. But those who know the story of the Enneagram know all about its eclectic metaphysical origins.

The Enneagram in its current form emerged from the efforts of wisdom teachers to apply timeless spiritual and religious principles to the field of psychology.  It was constructed brick by brick through the blending of the major spiritual traditions that have been guiding human actions for millennia. To those in the know, the nine Enneagram types are recognizable as religious archetypes, even though the Enneagram system can be applied as an analytical tool regardless of a person’s spiritual background.

So the answer to the question, "is the Enneagram faith-based?" is a qualified "yes." Qualified, in the sense that the spiritual pedigree of the Enneagram is undeniable, but those who use it do not need to be aware of this aspect of the system to rely on it as a valuable source of psychological insight.

Oscar Ichazo and the Creation of the Enneagram System

The Enneagram of Personality Types is an amalgamation of insights collected from the world’s most influential spiritual and wisdom traditions. It first emerged in the 1960s, under the guiding hand of a Bolivian spiritual teacher named Oscar Ichazo.

Ichazo was a spiritual seeker from an early age. He moved to Buenos Aires as a young man to study at a mystical wisdom school, hoping to gain insights that would unveil the secrets of human existence. A little later he traveled to Asia, in a search for knowledge about highly revered eastern spiritual traditions like Buddhism and Taoism.

In 1968 Ichazo returned to South America, where he founded the Arica School of Knowledge in Chile, in order to introduce others to the most profound spiritual truths as he understood them. The Arica School philosophy for achieving wisdom and pursuing self-development featured a vast and carefully integrated body of observations harvested from various religions, psychological theories, cosmological principles, great teachers and hard-earned personal experience. Oscar Ichazo’s dense and multilayered system of thought was designed to lead followers toward self-realization and a more conscious and self-aware way of living.

The nine-pointed, star-within-a-circle Enneagram shape, which is used to connect and contextualize the various personality types, dates far back into antiquity. Ichazo’s brainstorm was to convert it to a structure for understanding human psychology and its interface with personality. Along the points he placed different motivating principles, in an order designed to capture the complexity of how they might interact within the individual psyche. One motivating principle would be dominant, but the others were present in latent form as well.

In a book he published about his life and philosophy in 1982, Oscar Ichazo revealed the true nature of the Enneagram. The language he used to do so is enlightening:

"We have to distinguish between a man as he is in essence, and as he is in ego or personality. In essence, every person is perfect, fearless, and in a loving unity with the entire cosmos; there is no conflict within the person between head, heart, and stomach or between the person and others. Then something happens: the ego begins to develop, karma accumulates, there is a transition from objectivity to subjectivity; man falls from essence into personality." 

In this passage, Ichazo first makes the distinction between ego, personality, and essence. He speaks of the latter as representing "a loving unity with the entire cosmos," which certainly gives essence a strong metaphysical grounding. He also portrays a person’s fall from their essence in spiritual terms, speaking of karma (an Eastern religious concept) as a consequence of the development of ego and the transition from objectivity to subjectivity. He is describing a separation from a person’s true spiritual nature, the type that can be more fully comprehended through the use and application of the Enneagram system.

Remarkably, Ichazo’s original Enneagram of Personality system included 108 separate Enneagrams with nine different personality characteristics associated with each. In every instance, the terms used in these Enneagrams refers somehow to the relationship between a human being’s essence or essential spiritual nature (their original level of existence) and their ego. The ego’s tendency was to pull a person away from their true essence, Ichazo taught, and a person may spend their entire life trying to recover everything they lost because of the ego’s tricks.

The Enneagram of the Personality was separate from healing and redeeming essence. Yet through its origin story it could ultimately be traced back to a person’s fall from the most perfect of all states.

The Enneagram Undergoes Further Refinement

At its core, Ichazo’s system was grounded in a metaphysical rather than a materialistic worldview. Many people found his ideas inspiring and even awe-inspiring, and over time he accumulated a large following.

One student who was deeply impressed by Ichazo’s teachings was Chilean psychiatrist Claudio Naranjo. After taking a course at the Arica School, Naranjo eventually developed his own version of the Enneagram system, which he transported to the United States in the 1970s. As Naranjo’s Enneagram grew in popularity in the US and elsewhere, the system went through additional refinement in the hands of Don Richard Riso.

Fittingly enough, Riso was serving in the Jesuit order as a seminarian when he first encountered the Enneagram system in 1974. Riso spent more than a decade researching the Enneagram and the nuggets of wisdom behind it, and in 1987 he unveiled his ideas about the system in a book entitled Personality Types: Using the Enneagram for Self-Discovery. Riso published yet another groundbreaking book called Understanding the Enneagram in 1990, as he continued to explore what the insights of the Enneagram system could do for the wounded and alienated psyche.

Don Richard Riso later partnered with mindfulness expert Russ Hudson, and together they authored a total of five bestselling books on the Enneagram, including revised versions of Riso’s first two works. It was during Riso’s collaboration with Hudson that the Enneagram system underwent its final refinement, which distilled it down to the one Enneagram with nine defining personality characteristics that are associated with the system today.

Riso and Russ Hudson developed their own Enneagram typing test in 1993, and this test is now the most widely used in the world.

The Enneagram System Meets the Evangelical Church

In recent years the Enneagram personality typing system has increasingly been marketed as a faith-based or spiritual innovation. In the United States it has become popular with many Evangelical Christians, particularly younger ones.

This development has been seen as disturbing by some more traditional Evangelicals. They worry the core assumptions of the Enneagram are inconsistent with the teachings of the Bible.

But younger Christians don’t seem overly concerned about the Enneagram’s compatibility with traditional spiritual messages. They see the Enneagram as the perfect complement to their Christian worldview, despite its grounding in a wide range of metaphysical belief systems. Their picture of what Christianity represents is broad enough to include a system for psychological and emotional analysis with roots in other spiritual traditions.

Sarajane Case is the prototypical young Evangelical Christian Enneagram enthusiast. With an Enneagram-themed Instagram account that has more than a half-million followers, Case credits her experience with the Enneagram with revitalizing her religious practice. She is now an accredited Enneagram coach who spreads the good word about the system through webinars, in-person workshops and speaking events.

“I think that once you find your type, you become really evangelical about it,” Case said, in a recent interview published on Medium. “You see the transformation that happens inside of you and you’re like, ‘I’ve never felt more seen, I’ve never felt so uncomfortably aware of every way I orient in the world, and how that impacts other people’—and you want everyone to experience that.”

The Enneagram is for Everyone

The question "is the Enneagram faith-based" would be difficult to answer if the effort were made to tie it too tightly to any particular religious tradition. It would be a mistake, for example, to label the Enneagram as a natural outgrowth of the Christian faith, despite its burgeoning popularity in certain Christian circles. It can also not be credited to Judaism, Islam, Sufism, Buddhism, Taoism, Native American spiritual belief systems, ancient Egyptian religions, or metaphysical traditions associated with the philosophies and religions of ancient Greece.  It makes more sense to say it is consistent with religious understanding because it emerges from the integration of so many traditions.

Part of the brilliance of the Enneagram system is the fact that it can be subtracted from its deeper metaphysical context and still ring true. Those who use the Enneagram today and swear by its insights include a mixture of the religious and the non-religious, of the spiritually oriented and those with no spiritual beliefs whatsoever.

If you decide to apply the Enneagram to your life and adopt its logic as your foundation for self-development, it can open new vistas that will help you see yourself in a different—and much brighter—light. Knowing your Enneagram type can guide you to a productive pathway to self-understanding, regardless of how you conceive of your place in creation and the universe.

The Enneagram can be your key to personal enlightenment. Whether you choose to believe this source of illumination is divine or secular is entirely up to you.

Nathan Falde
Nathan Falde has been working as a freelance writer for the past six years. His ghostwritten work and bylined articles have appeared in numerous online outlets, and in 2014-2015 he acted as co-creator for a series of eBooks on the personality types. An INFJ and a native of Wisconsin, Nathan currently lives in Bogota, Colombia with his wife Martha and their son Nicholas.