Game designers as well as those attempting to solve the problem of conspiracy theories (now so pervasive in our culture) deal with a common human trait that’s at play for both of them: apophenia. That’s the human tendency to see connections that aren’t really there.
In game design, apophenia can become a hindrance to gameplay when players spot a detail on their screens that seems to point to what “must” be an essential element to solving the puzzle. A note left in a drawer in a dark room “has” to be a clue, even though it has nothing whatsoever to do with the solution and will only lead to confusion. It becomes an absolute roadblock, and players are tempted to give up on the game and move on to something more innocuous like “Animal Crossing.”
In the realm of conspiracy theories, apophenia is a reliable way to keep inhabitants of the dark web stuck in the endless cycle of suspicion and rejection of plain facts. Game designer Reed Berkowitz argues that purveyors of conspiracy theories make apophenia the point of the whole business. The aim is to “get the player lost by pointing out unrelated random events and creating a meaning for them that fits the propaganda message.” The goal isn’t to connect with reality in the real world but to keep people far from it. Any attempt to sway consumers of such theories away from them comes up against our willingness, even desire, to play the game.
Even if we don’t spend our days with a Nintendo Switch in our hands and aren’t clicking around the web to solve what we assume is a connection between politicians and hypotheses of vaccines implanting chips in our bodies, we still play the apophenia game on a daily basis. Think about the memes you’ve seen of a sunset where the clouds and the light form a giant cross in the sky, reading it as a sign from heaven. Or how we see an object our long-dead loved one cared about and believe they’re sending us a message from beyond the grave. Or how a gambler who perceives patterns in tosses of the dice or spins of the roulette wheel. Or how people discover an image of the Virgin Mary burnt into their toasted raisin bread at breakfast. These are just some of the ways the random combination of physics and our own longings becomes something that salves our hurts and quells our doubts about life in a broken world.
The law is for this world, not for determining your ultimate destination beyond life.
Though the concept of apophenia is a product of our psychological age and was first raised in 1958, Saint Paul fought against the same tendency in his letter to the Galatian churches. Christians from Jerusalem who had come to investigate Paul’s missionary work had succumbed to apophenia and played the card with the new converts because they believed it lay at the center of faith.
For Paul’s opponents, apophenia happened when they played the Christian life game and entered the room that contains the law. Instead of playing through the room to get to the ultimate solution in Christ’s death and resurrection, they assumed that God’s commands for righteousness — in rituals, sacrifices, prayer, and complete adoration of the Lord — were the one clue they needed to have it all make sense. And they couldn’t find a way out.
If God gives the law, they reasoned, then it must be the path to salvation. And if the law points to salvation, then to achieve what it demands, we must act on it. We must exert our wills and choose to become better. When it came to the uncircumcised men among the Galatians who’d converted, the solution was obvious: Decide to drop trou and submit to the blood ritual. If you follow all the religious rules laid out in the Scriptures, then (and only then) will you gain Christ’s benefits.
Paul was on to their apophenia game, and his argument in Galatians seeks to slice the connections his opponents foisted on those they would subject to the knife. He insists on a rigorous logic grounded in his opponents’ own history as Jews. He asks whether what we might call the “apophenic” connection between law and salvation actually is at play in God’s relationship with their forebears, specifically Abraham.
He quotes Genesis 15:6: Abraham, “believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness.” Abraham circumcised himself as a sign of what God had done, but the slicing came after God had already declared the patriarch righteous. Paul’s opponents figured that if God gives the law, then its fulfillment must lead to salvation. But the apostle saw the mistake in our human tendency to see relationships where there are none. Yes, God gave the law, but not as a criterion for righteousness, justification, or salvation. The law is for this world, not for determining your ultimate destination beyond life. For Paul, there’s only one Gospel, and it is Christ. His opponents have fallen for a false Gospel and found themselves compounding their sin rather than being relieved of it.
The result of our apophenia between the law and salvation is that humility turns into hubris.
Game designer Berkowitz says that apophenia can destroy a game. We’ve certainly seen the destructive results of apophenia when people engage with conspiracy theories. And we know how difficult it is to dissuade people from the connections that seem so real to them. For Paul, our apophenia in relation to the law also destroys the game of living faithfully. It takes us away from Christ as the agent of salvation and wrests control of it all so that we can maintain our own agency. When the law becomes the ultimate criterion, it pits us against our neighbors as we begin to evaluate those around us. We either lord it over them in self-righteousness, or we regard them as competition over whom we must have victory.
The result of our apophenia between the law and salvation is that humility turns into hubris. That’s the attitude that Paul’s opponents rode into Asia Minor with. It’s what drove them to demand adherence to the law —not just circumcision but every other law in the Torah — of the unsuspecting wet-behind-the-ears Christians in Galatia. It’s behind Paul’s list of “works of the flesh” in Galatians 5. In the end, for Paul, it eliminates the freedom he proclaims was Christ’s telos for us.
If you want a real connection and not something based on your tendency toward apophenia, look at Paul’s list of the fruits of the Spirit. The connection is this: Where saving faith is present, so, too, will these things be present. They’re not more law for believers to adhere to. They’re what happens when you’re free in Christ: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.
When you see someone display those qualities and ask why they respond to the world that way, they may very well tell you it’s out of self-interest. Those characteristics can happen without Christ. But faith in Christ doesn’t happen without bearing these fruits. People of faith often don’t make an apophenic connection between their love of neighbor and their faith in Christ. They might even be surprised at your question because they can’t help being that kind of person. They’ll say it wasn’t a decision. It’s just who they are.
But Paul knew, and so do we: the law doesn’t change hearts or heal the world. More demands won’t do the trick. A job description for righteousness from the pulpit will be a bad clue that leads the players in the pews away from the solution to the puzzle of their own sin and brokenness. The real way through to righteousness, justification, and salvation is always through a plain proclamation of the truth that sets you free: Christ crucified, dead, and risen. For you.