Scripture and the Elusive Self


The Enneagram is valued for its insight into our internal, spiritual world. For Christians interested in “not only life but life to the fullest” (John 10:10), this makes the Enneagram especially intriguing. However, for many Christians (especially evangelicals), we think of ourselves as people who turn to Scripture for spiritual enrichment, rather than the theoretical models of the human person. It is as if we have this idealized religious self who receives all religious instruction solely through Scripture. However, this idealized mode of Scripture reading is rooted in a false dichotomy that presupposes that we do not read Scripture through a host of extra-biblical sources.

Consider, for example, Jesus’ command to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 19:19). As we move from reading and interpreting that command toward applying it, we are convinced that we cannot, for example, both love our enemy and enslave him. Therefore, it is our Christian conviction that we should not enslave our neighbor in spite of several other biblical commands that slaves should obey their masters (Col. 3:22, Eph. 6:5, and 1 Peter 2:18). How is this so? We apply the love command, while standing on the shoulders of philosophers like John Locke, who taught us that all persons are created equal, and psychologists who teach us about the inner workings of the self, so that we can love our neighbor by building up her psyche.

In a lively conversation with friends we might ask: Why do some people use drugs? Why is our society plagued with mass shootings? Why am I not able to find fulfillment? Why do some people receive preferential treatment? In seeking answers to these questions, our conversations will undoubtedly turn to psychology to offer at least partial answers because one of the manifestations of individualism is our search for understanding the internal motivations of the individual. According to Bruce Malina, “We tend to consider a person’s psychological makeup, his or her development from infancy on, as well as his or her individual uniqueness (personal uniqueness), as perhaps the most important elements in understanding and explaining human behavior, both our own and others.”[1] Unfortunately, Scripture and other ancient writings rarely join us in our questions about the inner workings of human persons. Malina points out that New Testament writers were not interested in or concerned about explaining personal behavior. The New Testament writers did not think about the “individual” in the same way that we do today. Consequently, they did not pursue the same kind of questions that persist in our individualistic conceptions of the spiritual life.[2]

Following Clifford Geertz, one might think of think of the self as “a bounded, unique, more or less integrated motivational and cognitive universe, a dynamic center of awareness, emotion, judgment and action organized into a distinctive whole and set contrastingly against other wholes and against its social and natural background.” Geertz goes on to point out that the notion of this kind of autonomous self is “a rather peculiar idea in world cultures.”[3]While the assumption that we are autonomous selves runs silently in the background of our thinking, it was absent from the mindset of the biblical authors. Growing up, most westerners are taught to stand on their own two feet, not give into peer pressure, construct their own beliefs, make their own decisions, and take a stand for what is right even if it means acting alone. It might surprise us to learn that this level of individualism is rare in other parts of the world today, and it was completely absent from the context in which the Bible was constructed.[4]

Scholars call the culture of the New Testament “dyadism,” from the Greek word for pair or twosome. A person entrenched in a dyadic culture needs others in order to know who they are. They consider the self that is reflected back to them by others as prescription for their behavior and feels compelled to live out of the expectations of others.[5]

Where we think psychologically, most writers canonized in Scripture (as well as their extra-canonical peers) thought more “sociologically.” For example, if I were a first century Jew from Antioch and I met a Gentile from Tarsus of the Magdalene clan, then as I came to learn about her, I would consider my new acquaintance a window into this clan. I would not think of myself as getting to know a unique individual, but as one learning about the whole family through one person. We would consider this an unsophisticated exercise in stereotyping today, but if you believe that the significance of an individual exists not within a unique person, but within a person who represents a unique and distinctive group, then this is a reasonable way of thinking.[6]

This mode of thought is evidenced in Scripture when authors proclaim: “Cretans are always liars, vicious brutes, lazy gluttons” (Titus 1:12). “Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans” (John 4:9). “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!” (Matt. 23:37, Luke 13:34). “Certainly you are one of them; for you are a Galilean” (Mark 14:70). Paul alone makes sweeping statements about “Jews and Greeks” (See Rom. 3:2-29; 9:24; 11:14; 1Cor. 1:22-24; 9:20; 10:32; Gal. 2:13-15). Next time you read Scripture pay attention to “for” or “because” statements and you will find that the explanations that follow point to external explanations for almost any event. For example, Jesus finds Peter and Andrew “casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen” (Mark 5:42) or that the girl got up and walked; for she was twelve years old” (Mark 5:42).[7]

My overarching and rather disappointing point here is that explicit descriptions of the internal self are rare (perhaps non-existent?) in Scripture because the “dyadic personality derives its information from outside the self, and, in turn, serves as a source of outside information for others. Anything that goes on inside of a person is filtered out of attention. Individual psychology, individual uniqueness and individual self-consciousness are simply dismissed as uninteresting or unimportant.”[8]Not to be deterred, but with the above context in mind, this series will search the world of Christian Scripture for the internal self and its connection to the philosophy of the self foundational to the Enneagram.

[1]Bruce Malina, New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology,(John Knox: Atlanta, GA),1981, 54.

[2]Ibid, 54

[3]Quoted in Malina, 54.

[4]Malina, 54.

[5]ibid, 55.

[6]ibid, 55.

[7]ibid, 57.

[8]ibid, 67.