I just finished a book on the enneagram, which was probably two-thirds reasonably helpful discussion of various personality types and their various tendencies, and one-third froofy New Age platitudes. It was the latter which made the greater impression on me, of course, which goes to show that I chose the wrong book to learn about the enneagram. (I don’t need to shame the authors by printing the title here, but if you’re dying to know, it just might be the most highly-rated ‘enneagram’ book on Amazon.)

What was most jarring was how the authors would make miscellaneous quotations of diverse religious teachers, or refer to various concepts among world religions, to back up their points. And to what purpose? As a survey of cultural trends from which to make claims about universal human tendencies and anxieties? That would at least be coherent, but for all I could tell the various religions were cited with reverence.

So, long having set aside any goal of introspection and increased self-understanding, I tried to wrap my mind around the absurdity of 1) citing a religious teacher, 2) with no desire to connect the particular phrase chosen to the larger truth claims at play, 3) and with no attention given to the fact that many of these claims are mutually exclusive. You could take C.S. Lewis’s trilemma and apply it to every single religious group they cite.

It all comes from an intellectual laziness that aims for an eclectic ecumenism without first taking the trouble to parse out the teachings in the first place, to see whether there is anything of value, or indeed, since nothing can be entirely without value, whether the whole coheres to the point where it would be worthwhile to take a particular claim (or even aphorism) seriously because of who said it. For instance, if Jesus of Nazareth claimed to be God but was not in fact God, does it really matter whether He said something catchy or wise-sounding at some point?

(More darkly, there is a certain intellectual arrogance in which one assumes that one’s own system is the true system, to the point where all wisdom found in other traditions reinforces and validates whatever one happens to think that the truth is. This famously happened to liberal Protestant theology in the 19th century; Jesus was not a first century Jew but an Enlightenment figure processing the paroxysm of 19th century Romanticism, etc.)

All of this is percolating in my mind—the absurdities are concentrated in the final chapters of the book—when I tap past the last page and get to the Acknowledgements.

It would be impossible to write any set of acknowledgments without remembering the Great Teachers who have most influenced us—Buddha, Christ, and Muhammad—as well as more contemporary teachers—Gurdjieff, Krishnamurti, Dogen, Jellaudin Rumi, Sri Aurobindo, and Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj.

Now I don’t know all those names, but you can’t so much as google “Rumi” without finding out that he lived in the 13th century. Aside from an editorial blunder, one can only imagine that these “influences” were only ever gotten at second-hand, in quotations gleaned from other self-help books. Otherwise we’re left wondering why certain other contemporary figures were left off the list. What about Geoff Chaucer’s new experiments in rhymed verse? How about Frank d’Assisi’s recent thoughts on social justice? (Not to mention more recent contemporaries…)

(It is perhaps also notable that despite the name check, there was no quotation in the book from Muhammad, or any reference to the Qur’an. All of the Islamic sources were later Sufis, so far as I could tell. Similarly, aside from a reference to the Ten Commandments, there was no mention of the Old Testament; the Jewish references were to later Jewish writers. It would be interesting to do a study of froofy New Age literature to see which moments of the various traditions lend themselves to appropriation to the gauzy, feel-good world of self-help.)

But, whatever the failings of the New Age wrapper, the authors did an admirable job in describing the personality types. It wasn’t a ground-up defense of the validity of the enneagram, but I learned a lot about it, and I am glad to have at least a very basic understanding of the taxonomy.