Whether one is "religious" or not, everyone is a person of faith. If that sounds like a contradiction, the fact is that each one of us has faith, because faith is defined as having belief and trust in someone or something. It might be something intangible, but it is the trust we put into whatever motivates, inspires and gives us energy and vision.
Believing gives us meaning and a sense of our own identity. For Christians, it is faith in a loving, compassionate Creator God shown to us in the person of his Son, Jesus Christ, born into our world and still present in the context of our own personal experience and religious tradition. Some others may put their faith in the satisfaction gained from such things as success, or relationships or power.
Many people say that they are not "religious" but they are "spiritual", and this is a recognition that life is more than just what we see. We are attracted to goodness and altruism. In our city of Auckland we all delight in the beauty of art and nature, and experience wonder and awe when we see deeds of great sacrifice and generosity and creativity. These express that beyond our rational thinking there is something great at work, something visionary that surpasses the reach of our human horizons.
Sometimes those who are spiritual but not religious can have good reason to be suspicious of organised religion. When Christians and people of other faiths fail to live up to our ideals of love and forgiveness we are not being true to what we proclaim. We may observe the letter, but not the spirit of what our faith is all about. Jesus warned against this when he spoke of the hypocrisy of the Pharisees whom he described as "whited sepulchres" - meaning looking good on the outside yet corrupt within. For Christian believers and the church as a whole, there is always room to grow as we reach towards the goodness and holiness of God.
One of the big questions in today's world is whether there is such a thing as truth, or whether everything is a matter of opinion. It is a profound question; part of the universal human search for truth that has engaged whole cultures, philosophies and sciences since the beginning of human history.
A glance at ancient history shows clearly how cultures in different parts of the world have sought answers to the fundamental questions, "Who am I? Where have I come from? Where am I going? Why is there evil? What is there after this life?" There was a common recognition that beyond human knowledge and understanding there is something transcendent - a reality beyond their limited vision and experience.
The answers to these questions decided the direction which people sought to give to their lives. They told their own creation stories about the origins and destiny of life, and they created gods to worship and appease that they believed represented the random forces of nature upon which their whole existence and survival depended. In the search for meaning beyond all these different understandings, there was a body of knowledge which may be judged the commonality or spiritual heritage of humanity.
In today's world, with all the amazing insights gained and uncovered by the sciences we, more than in any other age or culture, have discovered truths about what once was speculation. We apply rationality to what was superstition and mystery. Yet the search for meaning and purpose in life still lives on in the human heart.
This brings us to the matter of faith and reason, which comes especially into focus at Christmas when we celebrate the historical fact and the mystery of the birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem. His birth, gospel teaching of grace and truth, and compassionate ministry, changed the course of human history forever.
Some with no religious faith may feel that there is an irreconcilable tension between faith and reason. From its very beginnings two thousand years ago in the person of Jesus Christ, Christianity was not an exclusive sect. Before his birth, people in that part of the world lived by the great theological or philosophical traditions of the Greek and Roman civilizations and the revelations given by God to the Jewish people. The rise of Christianity after the death and resurrection of Jesus was very public and its first adherents were Jews, Romans and Greeks. It was open to all and offered a rational account of God and of the creation and destiny of humanity which came to fulfillment in the person of Jesus Christ.
What is the relationship between divinely-inspired faith and human reason? One contemporary philosopher wrote that without reason, faith tends towards uninformed feeling, emotion and intuition. Reason without faith tends towards self-interest, personal and transient satisfactions and the absence of altruism.
We affirm the intellectual credibility of the Christian faith, and remind ourselves and others that human intelligence will never be fully satisfied except by God. The centuries-long procession of Christian thinkers, humanitarians, artists and scientists for whom faith and reason were central to their work is unequalled and unparalleled in its contribution to our civilisation. Naturally there have been problems along the way, as we are all flawed human beings prone to sin and greed. This is all the more reason to believe that co-operation and dialogue is essential nowadays, with many pressing issues facing humanity - ecology, peace and the co-existence of different peoples and cultures. It is vital that there is a clear and honest collaboration between Christians and followers of other religions and those who, while not sharing a religious belief, have a heart for the renewal of humanity.
We read in the gospels that Mary responded with great joy to the news that God had chosen her to be the mother of Jesus. So the words in the New Testament announcing the birth of Jesus are about joy. This was the message first preached in New Zealand on Christmas Day nearly 200 years ago. This is the true meaning of Christmas: God is willing to be found by us in our searching - God is with us and became like us in the person of the child who was Jesus, who came to redeem all of humanity.
In those places where people are dominated by fear and uncertainty the words, "My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour" (Luke 1:46-47) truly give us hope.
Joy and peace are the real gifts of Christmas, not expensive presents. We can communicate this joy simply: with a smile, a kind gesture, with hospitality, reconciliation and forgiveness of past wrongs. The joy we give will certainly come back to us. We pray that the presence of the liberating joy and peace of God expressed in the birth of Jesus Christ will shine forth in all our lives and in our Auckland communities this season.
Rev Dr Neville Bartle, National Superintendent, Church of the Nazarene.
Rt Rev Ross Bay, Anglican Bishop of Auckland.
Pastor Tak Bhana, Senior Pastor Church Unlimited.
Rev Norman Brookes, Auckland District Superintendent, Methodist Church of New Zealand.
Mr Glyn Carpenter, National Director, NZ Christian Network.
Rev Murray Cottle, Regional Consultant, Auckland Baptist Churches.
Pastor Paul de Jong, Senior Pastor, LIFE.
Most Rev Patrick Dunn, Catholic Bishop of Auckland.
Mr Peter Eccles, Auckland District Chairman, Congregational Union of New Zealand.
Mr David Goold, on behalf of the Open Brethren Churches.
Pastor Mike Griffiths, National Leader, Elim Churches of New Zealand.
Pastor Ken Harrison, Senior Pastor, Harvest Christian Church, Papakura AOGNZ.
Pastor Dr Brian Hughes, Senior Pastor, Calvary Chapel.
Major Stephen Jarvis, Divisional Commander, The Salvation Army.
Rev Fakaofo Kaio, Moderator, Northern Presbytery, Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand.
Very Rev Jo Kelly-Moore, Dean, Auckland Cathedral of the Holy Trinity.
Rev Dr John Kirkpatrick, Senior Pastor, Greenlane Christian Centre.
Rev Andrew Marshall, National Director, Alliances Churches of New Zealand.
Pastor Bruce Monk, National Leader, Acts Churches of New Zealand.
Pastor Sam Monk, Senior Pastor, Equippers Church.
Pastor Peter Mortlock, Senior Pastor, City Impact Church.
Pastor Lloyd Rankin, National Director, Vineyard Churches Aotearoa New Zealand.
Pastor John Steele, National Leader, New Life Churches.
Bishop Brian Tamaki, Destiny Churches.
Pastor Eddie Tupa'i, President North New Zealand Conference, Seventh-Day Adventist Church.
Rev Dr Richard Waugh, National Superintendent, Wesleyan Methodist Church of New Zealand.