The SnowStar Institute of Religion

This profile was last updated in 2006

The Origins of SnowStar

In the fall of 1999, the SnowStar Institute of Religion was founded by three Canadians with a thirst for critical inquiry – David Galston, Del Stewart and Chris Kraatz. They met each other at Iona College where Galston was the Principal of the College and Stewart and Kraatz were Co-Directors of a lay theology program. Notably, the three were also members of something called the Q Community at the college, which brought people together to study the Q Document (what is said by many to be a lost Christian textual source) and the question of the historical Jesus (the question of what Jesus really said and did). Even after the Q Community was concluded, the three continued to meet.

Pursuing their interests even further, they worked together to bring the Jesus Seminar, an established organization that explores questions surrounding the historical Jesus, to Canada.(1) An active group of members was formed but Galston, Steward and Kraatz soon changed their minds about the vision that they had for this group. Galston, who is the President of SnowStar, explained that,
“The work around the historical Jesus, because it is progressive, liberal, and challenging, opened up in the Canadian context a number of questions relevant to any faith tradition and history. Accordingly, the founders of the SnowStar Institute felt that the Canadian context demanded an inter-religious institute that held similar goals, though a broader platform.”(2)

Mission

The SnowStar Institute of Religion is thus based on a set of values and principles very similar to that of the Jesus Seminar. Indeed, the ‘Star’ of SnowStar is in acknowledgement of its roots with the Westar Institute, the organization that heads the Jesus Seminar. SnowStar’s methodology then, like the Jesus Seminar, is one that emphasizes honesty in its practice of promoting religious literacy. This means that it places a high value on critical scholarship in the search for answers and less value on the specific answers that are found. In other words, weight is given to “concepts and truths” as opposed to one perspective or religion. The SnowStar website explains that, “Over time, answers can change with new information or greater maturity. Honesty, however, remains.”(3)

Yet what distinguishes SnowStar from its roots with the Jesus Seminar is its interfaith approach. The word ‘Snow’ in SnowStar was chosen in recognition of the organization’s base in Canada, a multi-religious society like so many others. Thus SnowStar’s mission is to maintain a space where, “seekers and followers of all faith traditions can come together to respectfully and courageously examine, research, honour and celebrate the historical and progressive theologies of their own religions and those of others.”(4)

Activities

To support its mission, the Institute organizes conferences and workshops and creates publications to advance “mutual understanding and tolerance” among religious communities.(5) In addition to sharing introductory material on different religious traditions, SnowStar goes a step further by encouraging “an open and free examination of religion.”(6) The annual SnowStar conference is one avenue by which this is done. For example, the 2005 conference held a feminist forum where feminism was examined in the context of Islamic, Jewish and Christian traditions. The forum was deemed a success by SnowStar because, “it got people thinking outside the box.”(7) The 2006 conference, entitled New Horizons in Religion and Justice (Challenging Systems Old & New)(8), was similarly explorative in its examination of religion.

SnowStar’s two major publications play a similar role. The first, AXIAL magazine, is published three times annually and contains articles from distinguished scholars and members. It also provides updates on SnowStar news and developments. The second major publication is the newsletter, In the Meantime. It is produced in between publications of AXIAL and serves to similarly inform members of upcoming events, news and SnowStar activities. In line with SnowStar’s philosophy that places value on research and critical scholarship, the newsletter includes an “Ask a Scholar” section where questions from members are answered with academic rigour.(9)
SnowStar also encourages informed and critical engagement with religion by recognizing those who demonstrate outstanding “courage and creativity.”(10) For example, Raheel Raza was the first to receive the SnowStar ‘Outstanding Contribution to Religious Life’ award in 2005.(11)

Raheel Raza

“Raheel is almost the definition of this award,” commented Galston.(12) Indeed, Raheel Raza is a renowned interfaith and women’s rights advocate and also serves as the Director of Inter-Religious Affairs at SnowStar. She was the first Muslim woman to lead mixed gender Friday prayers in Canada, has authored the book entitled Their Jihad – Not My Jihad, and is in the process of creating a documentary on religious tribunals in Ontario, Canada. In her writing, public speaking and media appearances, both as a representative of SnowStar and otherwise, she challenges popular perceptions of Islam and questions ‘Islamic’ traditions that are discriminatory. In an interview where she was discussing interfaith relations, she explained that, “Those of us who have strong bonds with our sisters in other faiths realize that what we have in common is greater than our differences.”(13) To learn more about Raheel Raza and her work, visit www.raheelraza.com.

Membership & Affiliations

SnowStar Associated Communities (SSAC’s) are member organizations, “who share the progressive, inter-religious, challenging, and exploring spirit of the SnowStar Institute.”(14) Some SSAC’s have been created by local SnowStar members and others are existing groups that wish “to have a defined relationship to SnowStar.”(15) Currently, there are five SSAC’s and some interest in developing more. SSAC’s existing today are located in Montreal, London, Leamington, Hamilton and Mississauga.(16) These affiliates can range from book clubs to synagogues (17) and are awarded their status as SSAC’s through application.(18) While most SSAC’s are composed of people with a Christian background, the institute has been “making in-roads in Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and Pagan communities.”(19)

Individual SnowStar members number from approximately six to seven hundred. A majority of its members are based in Canada but there is also a significant number outside as well. Since the Institute is focused primarily on adult education, the vast majority of its members are eighteen years old and above.(20) Membership is attractive primarily to “individuals who seek a home outside of traditional religion options.”(21) Nevertheless, there are a few churches that hold memberships as well.(22) In terms of recruitment, SnowStar primarily depends on word of mouth and Galston articulated the philosophy behind this by explaining that, “SnowStar has chosen not to promote itself as another religious product. Rather, it attracts new members by what it does.”(23)

Financing

While SnowStar receives some donations from individuals and organizations, it depends heavily on its membership fees for basic operational expenditures.(24) Indeed, one of the challenges SnowStar faces in its work relates to this very issue. Since SnowStar places great emphasis on freedom of thought, it has chosen to sacrifice building affiliations with some universities and religious institutions because of the constraining effect that this may have on their work. As a result, finding funding for their work has and most likely will continue to be a challenge.(25)

Envisioning the Future

In the short-term, SnowStar plans to offer more “one or two-day workshops and learning events.” It also “hopes to offer academically accredited courses.”(26) In the long-term, SnowStar envisions the creation of a college. The college is to be unique in at least two ways. First, it will be an “inter-religious theological college.”(27) Galston imagines a theological institution where Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, Christians and Buddhists among others would learn together. The second aspect that would make this college distinctive from others would be its open and critical approach to the study of religion that is characteristic of SnowStar. Galston pointed out that, “in religion today, the teaching has tended to move to a more conservative, hesitant kind of stance,” and it is with this in mind that SnowStar aspires to create a college that has a “religious thought environment” that is, “absolutely boldly critical, adventuring [and] exploring.”(28)

Endnotes

(1) Email interview with David Galston. 1 August 2006.
(2) Ibid.
(3) SnowStar Institute of Religion Web Site. http://www.snowstarinstitute.org/Pages/historicaljesus.htm. Accessed 4 August 2006.
(4) SnowStar Institute of Religion Web Site. http://www.snowstarinstitute.org/about.htm. Accessed 4 August 2006. Emphasis added.
(5) Ibid.
(6) SnowStar Institute of Religion Web Site. http://www.snowstarinstitute.org/Pages/Inter-religious.htm. Accessed 4 August 2006.
(7) Phone interview with Raheel Raza. 31 July 2006.
(8) SnowStar Institute of Religion Web Site. http://snowstarinstitute.org/Speakers2006.htm. Accessed 4 August 2006.
(9) SnowStar Institute of Religion Web Site. http://www.snowstarinstitute.org/meantime.htm. Accessed 4 August 2006.
(10) Phone interview with David Galston. 2 August 2006.
(11) Email interview with David Galston. 1 August 2006.
(12) Ibid.
(13) Porter, Beth. The Interfaith Imperative: A Canadian Muslim Woman’s View in A Human Future, 3 (1). L’Arche Canada Foundation, May 2004. http://www.larchecanfoundation.org/Documents/Thought%20Sheet%20May04.pdf. Accessed 4 August 2006.
(14) SnowStar Institute of Religion Web Site. http://www.snowstarinstitute.org/SSAC.htm. Accessed 4 August 2006.
(15) Email interview with David Galston. 1 August 2006.
(16) Ibid.
(17) SnowStar Institute of Religion Web Site. http://www.snowstarinstitute.org/SSAC.htm. Accessed 9 August 2006.
(18) Email interview with David Galston. 1 August 2006.
(19) Ibid.
(20) Ibid.
(21) Ibid.
(22) Ibid.
(23) Ibid.
(24) Ibid.
(25) Phone interview with David Galston. 2 August 2006.
(26) Email interview with David Galston. 1 August 2006.
(27) Phone interview with David Galston. 2 August 2006.
(28) Ibid.