Faith, Reason, and a Washing Machine

November 28, 2018


If you are a regular reader of Word on Fire, then you know that one of the big themes of this movement is the harmony between faith and reason, fides et ratio. One of the false narratives of our time is that you have to make a decision between being a person of reason (science) or a person of faith, as if the two were in opposition. But the Catholic is one who believes that reason and revelation both give us access to truth, and that they are not in opposition. This both/and position is why the recent news about renaming the Big Bang Theory to acknowledge the Catholic priest who discovered it, Fr. Georges Lemaitre, is a big deal, because it offers an excellent example of how faith and reason work together in coming to the truth of things.

With all this in mind, something happened to me the other day in the laundry room here at my new home at the Casa Santa Maria that I thought might help explain what we mean as Catholics when we speak about the harmony between faith and reason.

The washing machines in Rome are different than the ones that I am used to back in the States. For one thing, they are much smaller. There are no options for mini-loads or over-sized loads. The only real options you have are choosing the water temperature, spin rate, and whether or not you want to add pre-wash or some fabric softener. These machines aren’t made for Tide pods; you use powder or liquid detergent and you pour it in the receptacle on the top part of the machine. Moreover, if you are washing your blacks, you need to use special liquid detergent or else they will turn a ugly shade of brown.

So imagine this: on the top of the machine there is a grey flap, which is the covering of the receptacle where you pour your detergent. That receptacle is divided into three separate chambers; the first is for pre-wash, the second is for the regular cycle wash, and the third for fabric softener, if you so wish to use it.

I’ve been living here since later September, and until a week ago, whether I was using the powder detergent for the majority of my laundry or the color-safe liquid detergent for my blacks, I had been using the machines the same way. But my diocesan brother, Fr. Chris, happened to be in the laundry room while I was filling my machines and told me something that had not occurred to me. He said that if you are using liquid detergent, you can start by pouring some in the pre-wash receptacle, but that you need to wait five minutes until the light switches from pre-wash mode to the regular wash mode before you pour the detergent into the regular cycle container. The reason for these instructions is this: the way that powder detergent enters the machine through each cycle is through a rush of water, which comes at the appropriate time of each cycle. In other words, the powder detergent stays in place until the surge of water comes at the right time. But, if you use liquid detergent, it doesn’t sit there waiting for the water surge to push it into the machine at the right time; it all flows into the machine for the pre-wash cycle, which means that there is no detergent available for the regular wash cycle.

So, long story short, for my first six weeks living at the Casa, my black clothes were only being pre-washed, as I poured all the liquid detergent in at once and started the machine. Until Fr. Chris told me about the truth of how our washing machines worked, I did not know to wait for the light of the second-cycle to pour the color-safe liquid detergent into the second chamber so that my clothes would actually be washed with detergent. Now I know.

But how did I come to know the truth about our washing machines? I came to know it because someone told me. Fr. Chris told me. We could say that he revealed the truth to me, because he did. But, if I never ran into Fr. Chris while he was doing his laundry, would it be possible for me to figure out, on my own, how our washing machines operated? Yes. If I carefully observed the machine in its operation, I would have eventually been able to figure out that all the liquid detergent flows directly into the machine all at once, even the detergent that is compartmentalized for the regular wash cycle, which happens five minutes into the wash cycle itself. How long would it have taken for me to figure out this truth about our washing machines had Fr. Chris not talked to me? I don’t know. It would probably depend upon how inquisitive I was about the machine and its operation, but seeing that I’m a doctoral student and have lots of books to read, I am glad Fr. Chris told me the truth about the machine and saved me lots of time.

So what does all this laundry talk have to do with faith and reason? For starters, note that we have shown that there are two ways of coming to the truth of how our washing machines operate here at the Casa: through revelation (Fr. Chris telling me about them) or direct observation (spending enough time with the machine and using reason to figure out how it works). Both ways present the truth. They are not in competition with each other. Analogously, this is what we mean when we say that reason and revelation are not in competition with each other.

In Book One of Summa Contra Gentiles, St. Thomas Aquinas asks whether it is fitting that God should reveal philosophical truths that are accessible to reason. His answer is yes! Yes, there are many truths (not all) regarding our salvation that are accessible through reason alone, but that does not mean that such truths are easy to figure out on our own. On the contrary, Thomas says that without God telling us about these truths himself (revelation) the vast majority of humanity would go without them due to 1) lack of intelligence, 2) lack of leisure for research, or 3) lack of a taste for study. Thomas also adds that even those who attained such truths through reason alone would only do so after a great deal of labor and long thought, and that they would run the risk of ignorance for the greater part of their lives.

If we return to our washing machine example, we’ll see that Thomas is right. Would it have been possible to figure out the whole pre-wash/regular wash business on my own, without Fr. Chris revealing the truth of the machines to me? Yes. But I am not sure if 1) I am smart enough, 2) I had the time to sit and observe the machines for hours on end, or 3) I actually wanted to study the operation of our washing machines here at the Casa. G.K. Chesterton notes, “St. Thomas was willing to allow the one truth to be approached by two paths, precisely because he was sure there was only one truth.” Fr. Chris revealed the truth of the machines to me and so I didn’t have to figure out the truths of the machines on my own. He saved me a lot of time and intellectual work, and for that, I am grateful.

All analogies limp, but I find this washing machine analogy to be a good one to explain the harmonious relationship of faith and reason. In fact, the morning Fr. Chris told me about how our machines worked, I told him that I planned to use this example in class with my seminarians when I’m done with my doctoral studies here and return to Cleveland. Until then, I figured I’d try it out on you first.