Conversations

Donna Freitas – Wishful Thinking [Q/A]

IMAGE CREDIT: Christopher Lane

We recently had the chance to ask Donna Freitas a few questions about her poignant new book that was released just last week!

Wishful Thinking: How I Lost My Faith and
Why I Want to Find It

Donna Freitas

 
Hardback: Worthy Books, 2024
Buy Now: [ BookShop ] [ Amazon ] [ Kindle ]

 
 
Book Description:

Donna Freitas wants to believe.

Raised Catholic, she sang songs about Jesus as a child and lived in a house where nuns and priests were regular guests, yet she found herself questioning the faith of her family, examining the reasons none of it added up, and distancing herself from the God of Christianity.

Despite her questions—or perhaps because of them—she made a career out of trying to understand God, pursuing a PhD in religion. But even as she taught college students about mystics, theologians, and others who wrestled with God, she was never able to embrace a faith of her own.

In this searingly honest and deeply personal book, Freitas retraces her roundabout path up and out of the wilderness toward hope, and her dogged—and ongoing—search for faith. She talks about her experience with the Catholic abuse scandal, about being embraced as a speaker at evangelical colleges, about how the death of her mother and the loss of her marriage made her question everything she thought she knew about love, how she cannot reconcile the ways the concept of God makes absolutely no sense, and how she cannot stop trying to believe, despite it all.

Real, raw, and beautifully written, Wishful Thinking is a powerful story about the author’s search for belief in God and about finding God in the most unexpected places.
 
 


 

Q&A with Donna Freitas:

 
You’re the author of more than twenty books and you’ve just released a new one called Wishful Thinking: How I Lost My Faith and Why I Want to Find It. Tell us about the book and why you wrote it.

I’ve wanted to write a memoir about faith for nearly 20 years—but I’ve also avoided writing it. I knew it would make me face difficult questions about faith in my life, about why I’ve struggled so hard with doubt and with being a believer, despite coming from a devout family who wanted me to be a person of faith so badly. When I started the memoir, I really didn’t know how it would end. In fact, I set it up like a cold case, with my faith gone missing. 

Now that it’s done, I’m so glad I wrote it, even though it was quite the journey.
 
 
You’ve been called a “precocious atheist.” How did that (or other labels) consciously or subconsciously influence your search for faith?

That term, “precocious atheist,” which was pronounced upon me by someone during college—really stuck to me as a young adult and onward. Like, I was this person born without this gene my whole family had and so many of my friends did too. I wanted it for myself, yet I couldn’t seem to figure out how to have it. I didn’t want to be this kid who “excelled” at being an atheist.

 
 
Let’s talk faith and mystery. You write, “as a young child, the ways I pushed and tested all things Church, God, and Jesus was welcomed, but as I got older, something shifted” (p. 68). What do you think shifted? Was there a certain point where you were no longer allowed to ponder these curiosities? Considering the strong faith perspective your mother had, how did this shift affect your relationship with her?

Within religious communities and traditions, I think we often indulge children’s questions more openly—but as kids become teenagers and young adults, within these same communities sometimes those questions provoke fear in the adults around us, especially when sex becomes part of the picture, and when we become independent thinkers, capable of making our own choices about what we believe and don’t. As I got older, I began to feel like the hard questioning I was doing about all-things faith became something that made the Catholic community around me nervous. Even rejecting me at times.

Though: my mother kept at me, trying to talk to me about God, trying to find the path toward God and belief that would work for me. She tried everything really! I’d be trapped in the car after she’d pick me up from the airport and she’d be like, “So Donna, what if God was a woman? Would that change your feelings about God?” I remember that particular conversation very vividly and how I was like, Get me out of this car! Mom, come on, stop!

She tried so hard—and I always rejected her attempts. I know this hurt her. I wish she was still alive so I could go back and thank her for never giving up on me. This is one reason the memoir is dedicated to her. In a way, maybe it’s a plea for forgiveness.

 
 
Your relationship with your parents is a recurring topic. A couple chapters later, you say, “I see the tremendous conflict between what my mother tried to give me and what my father gave me accidentally.” Tell us more. How did your relationship with your parents differ? And how did that impact your relationship to faith?

My mother was the enthusiastic, vibrant, indefatigable, big personality-ed person of faith in our house, someone who prayed out loud while cooking, talked to the saints while driving in the car—just bright and larger-than-life. For her, faith was easy, obvious, everything.

My father—who was also very funny, a true character as well—had a deep wellspring of darkness. He dwelled in the abyss, he wandered in the wilderness, he got lost in the long dark nights of his soul.

I was very close to both of them, and I inherited so much from each one of them. I owe them my life in every way—not just my existence, but my talents, the confidence they instilled in me, my sense of humor. The best things about myself I got from those two wonderful people. They were such good parents. I was lucky.

But when it comes to faith, I definitely inherited my father’s darkness, and his tendency toward dwelling in the wilderness. I am far more like my dad on the subject of faith, and I think maybe he and I both wished we were more like my mother in this regard.
 
 

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The small c church is the one that often does far more to help someone hang on to a faith tradition than all the popes and cardinals in all their formal proclamations and ceremonies together across all of history” (p. 175). Can you tell us about your experience with “the small c church?”

The “small c church” is made up of the people in our communities—the ones who show up when we are down, who are all around us all the time, being human, experiencing joys and triumphs and then stumbling around sometimes, living through grief and loss and disappointments just like we are. The “small c church” is the church that got my family through the very particular tragedies we faced—in the most miraculous of ways. You have to read the book for specifics, since I write a lot about this topic!

 
 
What do you mean when you talk about “writing toward God” (chapter 25)? What does that look like?

If there is ever a time when I sense God or get close to believing God might be out there, that God might even be paying attention to me, it’s when I’m writing. Writing feels like my window into the beyond, a place where I can see—and maybe even believe—in the unseen. It is my grace and what gets me through the pains of being human. So in a way, whenever I write, I think I am also seeking God. I am seeking some kind of salvation as I put words onto the page. 

Writing every morning for me, is probably a lot like attending daily mass. Gosh, my mother would love hearing me say that!

 
 
In the opening pages of your book, you tell your students to use their writing to help solve something important to them. And you note you’re doing the same in this book. At the end of the journey through Wishful Thinking, did you find answers? What do you hope readers seek or find as they take their own journey through your words?

How my memoir ends was surprising even for me. I wasn’t sure where it—and the question I put to it—would take me. It doesn’t end with some kind of neat answer, though, that’s for sure. 

I don’t believe there’s such a thing as a perfect kind of faith. Or a life lived without the press of doubt. I hope that by sharing my own imperfections and deep, lifelong struggles, that readers can relate, that they might find company in their own journeys, and in the ways that I don’t fit neatly—because maybe they feel like they don’t fit so neatly either. Probably a lot of us don’t. Probably a lot of us struggle with doubt, and anger sometimes, and feel lost—but we still seek ways beyond all of this.  

So I hope readers feel seen, that they laugh too, and that they feel company and hope by the end. I know that even by writing the memoir I feel less alone than I did before.

This memoir took me to a place where I could finally see what I have, and maybe what’s been there my whole life, in terms of faith and me. I’ll say that much.

Otherwise, you need to read to find out!

Find out more about Wishful Thinking and download a free excerpt to start reading now by clicking here.

 


 

C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com

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