The 12 Spiritual Temperaments


A New Model of Religion


© Copyright 1992, 2000 by Timothy Conway, Ph.D.


***Before reading any further: if you wish, take the 15-minute survey to discover your own spiritual temperament.

[Over the years since I first introduced it, this model of 12 Spiritual Temperaments has been well-received by many readers, who consider it a major contribution to the field of religious studies. A book-length treatment of the subject will be published after other writing projects are finished and in print. Note: The following is a much shorter and slightly less academic and thus more readable treatment of the subject that I make available for students.]

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The 12 Spiritual Temperaments--A New Model of Religion

The world religions have been analyzed in terms of their unique history, leaders, beliefs, scriptures, art, prayers, rituals, organizational structure, demographics, and so on, and then scholars have tried to articulate the differences and overlaps between/among the major world religions. But in so doing they tend to treat each world religion as one, homogenous entity (“Christianity,” “Buddhism,” “Judaism,” etc.).

However, the members of each of the sacred traditions are individual human beings possessing different psychological and spiritual temperaments. Because of these different types of human being, one particular religion will actually include a number of different types of “religion” within itself, according to the differing spiritual temperaments of its members. Thus, it makes far more sense to speak of “Buddhisms,” “Christianities,” “Hinduisms” (etc.) as John Hick has suggested, or of “Buddhist tradition” and “Christian tradition” (etc.), as many scholars now do, following the late Wilfred Cantwell Smith.

In this essay, based on over 40 years of participant-observer experience with different religious traditions, and a literature review of a few thousand works (especially the biographical and autobiographical literature on/by eminent spiritual leaders), I have briefly profiled twelve different spiritual temperaments that appear quite distinct, although they often overlap in a single individual. Each temperament can be seen to engender its own kind of “religion.”

These twelve spiritual temperaments are: 1) the Compassionate Server, 2) the Devotee, 3) the Intuitive Mystic-Sage, 4) the Intellectual, 5) the Dogmatic Believer, 6) the Monastic-Communalist, 7) the Hermit, 8) the Cynic or Freedom-Seeker, 9) the Ritualist-Ceremonialist, 10) the Yogi or Psychic-Experimenter, 11) the Prophet or Trance-Channel, 12) the Sensual Ecstatic.

The student of comparative sacred traditions and interfaith dialogue will find that two human beings of different religions yet characterized by the same spiritual temperament will usually have much more in common (though they may not recognize their kinship) than will two human beings of different temperaments who claim to belong to the same religion.

For instance, the fundamentalist “Dogmatic Believer” temperament is, psychologically speaking, rather uniform, characterized by the authoritarian personality cluster of traits; this temperament is uniform regardless of whether people possessing it are found in Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, or other religions. Their beliefs and practices certainly differ, but the way their psyches work seem quite similar. (The Dogmatic Believer temperament obviously is to be found, too, in the political realm, the corporate world, sports, and other walks of life.)

Likewise, the “Intuitive Mystic-Sage” individual can also be recognized within each of the major sacred traditions, and such individuals have more in common with each other and a greater sense of “kinship” than they do with members of the exoteric religion within which they have been raised. (Note, too, that Mystic-Sages from different religions, since they intuitively recognize the nondual ground of Being, more easily recognize their oneness than do, say, the Dogmatic Believers from different religions, who, traditionally, have tended to wage bitter propaganda campaigns, even brutal wars, against each other.)

As mentioned, an individual may have several of these temperaments overlapping. Thus, a single person may have a strong mystic-sage temperament along with strong server, devotee, and monastic orientations. Through the use of a questionnaire one can easily ascertain which of these twelve temperaments most strongly characterize an individual (along a Likert scale gradient of, say, 1 to 5), yielding a dominant temperament or two, and two or three sub-dominant temperaments; one could then display all this with a bar graph to yield an overall “profile” of a person’s spiritual “aptitude.”

As to whether these spiritual temperaments are innate or learned, I would say that they definitely can be learned and developed, through role-modeling on significant others (either in person or via reading); through peer-group influence; through one’s own endeavor; or through “God’s Grace.” Yet there does seem to be an innate component, which some regression therapists (and sages of Eastern religions) would claim comes from past-life habit patterns (Sanskrit: samskâras or vâsanâs). Thus, for example, a person who had spent many lifetimes living in Catholic and Buddhist monasteries might be expected to show a very strong “monastic-communalist” temperament in this lifetime. (Note: in an important article for a peer-reviewed journal, “Recent Responses to Survival Research,” in the J. of Scientific Exploration [Spring, 1997, vol. 10, no. 4, pp. 495ff.], academic philosopher Robert Almeder, at that time Editor of the prestigious American Philosophical Quarterly, says the empirical evidence for reincarnation is so good that the onus is now on the naysaying materialist skeptics to disprove it. Click here to read more on reincarnation)
Some of these temperaments are obviously more or less conducive toward spiritual realization than others. Following the important distinction by transpersonal psychology theorist Ken Wilber, whereas all these temperaments are “legitimate,” not all of them are equally “authentic,” i.e., capable of promoting deep virtue and complete spiritual liberation, sanctification, awakening, or God-Realization.


Here then are the twelve different religious or spiritual temperaments:

1) The Compassionate Server, found in all religions, is concerned with action, specifically in the form of helping other beings. This person is usually not so interested in belief systems, rituals, etc., but rather seeks to be of assistance to the needy. This Server temperament can be rather simplistic or it can include the highest type of ego-free compassion. The chief variable here is whether the individual is free of the egocentric sense of being the “doer” and is “unattached to the fruit of the action,” as the Hindus say. So the downside here would be if such a person began to see himself as the “do-gooder,” the “rescuer” or “savior” of others, seeing and treating others merely as objects of his beneficence. The Server may also engage in a kind of inner action on behalf of others—for instance, through spiritual healing prayer or even redemptive suffering, inviting affliction so as to “take on the sins (or karma)” of sentient beings. The Server may overlap with other temperaments, such as that of the Devotee or the Mystic-Sage.

2) The Devotee is devoted to and loves the Divine Father or Mother, Adonai, Allah, Christ Jesus, Amitabha Buddha, Siva, Vishnu (as Rama, Krishna), Great Spirit, Beloved Guide or Guru. Classic, typical virtues which Devotees cultivate through self-effort or receive through grace are a) gratitude for God’s benevolence, b) shared joy and agape/love with the community of devotees, c) humility and simplicity (self-emptying), d) loyalty and obedience to the conscience (the voice within) and dedication to whatever this voice suggests, and e) awe-full wonder over the mystery of God’s transcendence and the power of God’s immanence in fellow sentient beings and as nature. The Devotee temperament is found in all major religions, including non-theistic Buddhism (for instance, in Pure Land and Tantric Buddhism).

In less mature form, the Devotee is prone to excessive emotionalism or obsession with “progress” in becoming closer to God. In the more mature form of devotion, these faults are corrected by sublimation of childish emotionalism and a nondual devotion wherein the deepest, essential Self of both God and Devotee are realized as the same. “God and I are one, and yet it feels natural and appropriate just to spontaneously worship the Beloved.” The nondually-oriented Devotee simply feels at Home, at one with Divine Being. A sublime nondual devotion is found among great adepts in Hindu Advaita Vedanta, Muslim Sufism, forms of Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism in China, Korea, Japan and Tibet, and among some advanced Christian and Jewish mystics (e.g., Meister Eckhart, Catherine of Genoa, John of the Cross, Moshe Cordovero).

3) The Intuitive Mystic-Sage, also found within all sacred traditions, especially those in the East, aims to wake up to a realization of an Absolute, unconditioned Reality, the Divine Being that is always already the case, before/beyond personal and societal delusions and hallucinations. The Mystic Sage intuitively ponders the God-Self Source as the transcendent Pure Spirit, Absolute Being-Awareness-Bliss-Love fully immanent in/as all creation. Thee sage may utilize self-enquiry, deep relaxation, or opening up to the Grace of the inherent God-Self or Buddha-Nature. S/he acts out of an effortless effort. Downside: the would-be mystic-sage becomes lazy and content merely with an intellectual realization of certain timeless truths. At the highest level, the mystic sage employs an exquisitely refined, subtle intuition, a kind of “wise unknowing Understanding” which dissolves egocentrism and allows for a simple, unpretentious abiding as Pure Awareness or Pure Spirit. This liberating wisdom is variously called gnosis (in contemplative Christianity), jñâna/vidyâ (Hindu Vedanta), paññâ/prajñâ (Buddhism), ma'rifa (Sufism), ming/ta chueh (Taoism), and so forth. The Mystic Sage may formulate into words the awakening wisdom and the profound Realization it engenders, but s/he is not at all attached to such words, and may even use them playfully, poetically, and paradoxically to induce an identical “wise unknowing Understanding” in any listeners. The Mystic Sage feels no need to proselytize or impose doctrines.

Note that the realization of the Mystic-Sage may sometimes suffer from an overly pristine or dry quality if it does not include the Heart; thus most Sages spontaneously adopt the kind of motiveless, nondual devotion toward some aspect of the Beloved, or service to the needy, simply to “sweeten” experience, especially for the sake of inspiring those souls studying with the Mystic-Sage.

4) The Intellectual is concerned with understanding God, cosmos, human nature, spiritual truth and so on via abstract reasoning. The Intellectual spiritual temperament is concerned with theologizing and philosophizing. Classification, criticism, comparison and/or dialectical synthesis of ideas and propositions are the Intellectual’s forté. Most intellectuals feel constrained by a particular logic, whether the Aristotelian “either-or” logic of the excluded middle or else a more paradoxical logic such as Nagarjuna’s 4-fold Madhyamika Buddhist logic (“A,” “not-A,” “both A and not-A,” “neither A nor not-A”). One downside of the Intellectual is atrophy of the affective nature, the “heart,” in an obsession with mental processes. Likewise, the modes of rarified psychic sensitivity and spiritual intuition are often suppressed when intellect dominates. Whereas the mind is a powerful tool that should be honed, especially through studying sacred texts and wise discerning (Sanskrit: viveka) between the Real and passing phenomena, an exclusive fixation on discursive reasoning is viewed by spiritual masters as a pitfall.

5) The Dogmatic Believer feels the need to identify with a religious doctrine (ideas, creeds, myths) and benefits from this with great surety, confidence, security and emotional closure. However, the Believer is prone to being overly attached to a conceptual or mythic “story-line” mentality and can lose touch with authentic, direct, first-hand experiencing. Also prone to authoritarian narrow-mindedness (“I’m right, you’re wrong”), “us vs. them” thinking, rigidity, cognitive dissonance, and a need to proselytize. The Dogmatic Believer syndrome may be seen in especially great numbers and with different shades of strength among fundamentalist Christians, ultra-Orthodox Catholics, ultra-Orthodox Jews, fanatic Islamic groups, conservative Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, “Moonies,” the American branch of ISKCON (the “Hare Krishna” movement), Soka Gakkai (of the Nichiren brand of Buddhism), Aryan Supremist Christian groups, certain UFO “Space Brother” cults, etc. (Some members of these groups may occasionally display more mature types of spiritual temperament.)

6) The Monastic-Communalist values solidarity with a human community (brotherhood, sisterhood, spiritual family) and wants an ordered, regimented life away from a society or family systems perceived as meaningless, disordered, and/or needlessly complicated and stressful. Downside: possible unhealthy dependency on the group or overly naive childishness. On the positive side, the monastic-communalists may promote among themselves and visitors a tremendous agape love, emotional support, financial/economic security, shared humor and fun, and collective insight (“many minds are better than one”).

7) The Hermit wants considerable amounts of time in solitude to access profound spiritual depths. Some hermits will belong to a monastery or community and move back and forth between periods of isolation and companionship in a given day, week or month. Other hermits set up for themselves an almost completely eremitic lifestyle of solitude. Downside: the Hermit temperament may become so content in spiritual practice and certain rarified states of consciousness that s/he no longer needs or wants to interact with human beings. Also, if the original motive for retreat involved any form of sociopathic aversion to human company, a spiritually and psychologically unhealthy syndrome can develop. Ideally, the Hermit temperament involves a sense of solidarity with all sentient beings, and culminates in the person coming back to society to share the spiritual fruits of solitude (joy, tranquility, loving-kindness, and other gifts of the Spirit). In this case, the person with Hermit temperament may still continue to spend significant time as an anchorite, but this is combined with social interaction.

8) The Cynic / Freedom-Seeker, for the sake of true freedom, detaches from what are perceived to be binding social conventions, family ties, material possessions, physical comforts, egoic ambitions and affectations. The authentic Cynic temperament values naturalness; self-effacement; austere simplicity; unfettered itinerancy or else residence at the marketplace or crossroads; unconditional contentment and happiness regardless of external circumstances; social reform to promote the welfare of all beings—especially victims of injustice (with whom the Cynic feels tremendous solidarity); humble attunement to that Higher Power which transcends human artifice and self-serving models of religion; and totally care-free reliance on this Higher Power. The outspoken Cynic does not mind “making a scene,” castigating mediocrity and corruption, wherever s/he sees them (especially in high stations of power and authority), even when this entails great personal risk. The Cynic subverts grand philosophical and political schemas, explodes dogmas, and promotes a Zen-like “non-dwelling” attention, freed from rigid positionality. Downside: the immature person with Cynic temperament is filled with “mere cynicism,” pessimism, a contrarian personality (always needing to mis-match others), sneering antipathy toward those perceived as bound, stubborn individualism, and an egoically-driven pseudo-shamelessness and impudence.

The Cynic / Freedom Seeker temperament is found, of course, among those Cynics of the Hellenistic world, from Diogenes to Epictetus and Peregrinus; Socrates would also be honored as a member of this camp; some scholars suggest that Jesus’ persona was, at least in part, a Jewish version of the Cynic temperament. The Christian liberation theologians, in their solidarity with the poor and strong critique of injustice, express the Cynic temperament. Nagarjuna and the Madhyamika Buddhists and some of the Ch’an, Zen and Vajrayana masters could be seen as Cynics in the better sense of the word (they can also be categorized as “Intuitive Mystic Sages”). Kabir and many of the Sants of India clearly were cynics castigating and challenging the caste system and religious power structure. Many wandering renunciates within several of the major traditions, as well as the more “sober” among the “holy fools” of India (e.g., avadhutas), China (yü-jen), Europe (saloi and yurodivye), and Muslim lands (majdhubs) manifest the Cynic temperament.

9) The Ritualist-Ceremonialist uses and manipulates outer elements and sometimes certain inner thoughts, images and feelings in order to experience atonement with and empowerment from the Divine Source of the universe. These rituals may be exquisitely refined, benevolently invoking maximum blessings for all beings, or crude and selfishly motivated forms of "gray (or black) magic." They may be performed in a flowing, spontaneous manner, with innovations, or rigidly repeated, with no tolerance for innovations. Ritualists’ ceremonies may be short or lengthy in performance, simple or complicated, plain or aesthetically rich, and utilizing natural or artificial (manmade) objects.

Rituals and holy or unholy magic are found in every religious tradition, but the Ritualist is especially drawn to become a practitioner or participant in such especially liturgical, ritual- and ceremony-oriented religions as Roman Catholicism, High Anglicanism, and Eastern Orthodox Christianity; Tantric Buddhism (Vajrayana, Shingon, Tendai) and Nichiren Buddhism; Brahmanical Hinduism; Tantric Hinduism; Judaism; Magic or Wicca/Neo-Paganism; Voudou; and, in the least mature and most selfish and aberrant form, Satanism.

10) The Yogi / Psychic-Experimenter, found in almost all sacred traditions, manipulates the body and inner experience (attention, thoughts, images, emotions) to access Alternate States of Consciousness (ASCs), ever seeking to permanently realize a Highest State of Consciousness (HSC) with Altered Traits of Consciousness (ATCs). The Yogi achieves such different states of consciousness via experimentation with bodily postures and movements, controlled breathing, and special forms of nutrition (frequent fasting, vegetarian diets, lacto-fruitarian diets, etc.). Special emphasis is placed upon experimenting with processes of attention through entrainment; one-pointed concentration on mantras, images, sounds or body sensations; hyper-vigilance and attention to the transition states between waking, sleep, and dreams; and rhythmic patterns. The Yogi tends to be introverted, seeking a purer state of knowing and feeling. Downside: prone to obsession-compulsion, excessive aversion to perceived “distractions,” and tabus concerning impurity. Someone aiming for greater power/energy through Yogic means is the siddha of India and Tibet, or the shaman, whose downside is the sorcerer. A person aiming for more peace through Yogic means is the contemplative, whose downside is the much-maligned “quietist.”

11) The Prophet / Trance-Channel gains inspiration and special knowledge (religious, artistic, medicinal) for self and others via psychic locutions and visions gained in a mediumistic or alter-persona trance state. While attuning to the “subtle realms of light,” such a person may encounter the Divine Father, Mother, gods, goddesses, spirit guides, angels, ancestral souls, nature spirits, et al. Sometimes s/he may have encounters with more demonic or mischievous figures from these subtle realms (e.g., the troubled souls of ancestors) and the successful Prophet/Trance-Channel learns to ward them off or bypass and transcend them. The state of trance may be induced via yogic experimentation or self-hypnosis, or arise spontaneously after emotional or physical health crisis, especially in persons who tend toward dissociative, alter-persona states. The degree of the trance may also vary from a light trance-state to a “full-body” trance-state, the latter often involving a complete suspending of the normal sense of identity, replaced by the completely “other” alter persona identity of the channeled persona/entity/archetype. The latter situation would qualify as a case of spirit-possession. Downside: the person becomes psychologically dependent on the channeled presence of the other personality and perhaps narcissistically self-inflated in identifying with this “other being” who is felt as more powerful, authoritative, and dominant over the rest of one's human community or society. Mediumistic trance-channeling and/or spirit possession is found worldwide, from indigenous peoples of pre-industrial societies to Jewish, Christian, and Muslim prophets and saints, Hindu and Taoist folk religionists, the Tibetan state oracle, Spiritualists, New Agers, and Japanese new religions (shinko shukyo). For example, all three Western monotheist religions appear to have been founded by men who had the Prophet/Trance-Channel temperament as a strong aspect of their overall personality—the Jewish Prophets Isaiah et al., Jesus (this is most apparent in the early Mark Gospel and the John Gospel's "I Am" sayings communicated from the Logos/Divine Word or Wisdom principle through Jesus), and Muhammad (through whom was communicated by angel Gabriel/Jibrail the Qur'an).

12) The Sensual Ecstatic is akin to the ritualist and the yogi in being fascinated with manipulating outer and inner elements of experience to lose the normal ego-sense and attain a different state of consciousness. However, whereas the ritualist and yogi are rather more serious or sublime, i.e., Apollian or Orphic in temperament, the Sensual Ecstatic represents a kind of wilder Dionysian personality. Moreover, the sensual ecstatic is usually more extroverted. There is much more concern to allow a spontaneous movement of vital energy to express. The Ecstatic seems especially interested in losing the ego-sense through chaotification of personality-structures via intense stimulation, wild dancing, rousing chanting, feasting, even drugs and sexuality. Downside: an immoral and antinomian approach may characterize some among the sensual ecstatics. This temperament can be found among hyper-expressive “holy roller” Pentecostalists and other Christian “enthusiasts,” the Bengali Bauls, the more “intoxicated” Muslim Sufis and Jewish Hasidim, Osho/Rajneesh’s “neo-sannyasins,” those Christians attending “Rave Masses” led by Matthew Fox (et al.), Voudou practitioners, the “flower child” Rainbow People of North America, and the more Dionysian among the indigenous shamanic societies.