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September 1st, 2012
11:08 AM ET

My Take: Give me Bali's empty chair over Eastwood's

An empty chair in Bali.

Editor's note: Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and author of "The American Bible: How Our Words Unite, Divide, and Define a Nation," is a regular CNN Belief Blog contributor.

By Stephen Prothero, Special to CNN

When I went to Bali a few years ago, I didn’t go, like most tourists, for the beaches or, like Elizabeth Gilbert, for love. I went for the religion. I wanted to learn something about the unique brand of Hinduism practiced there.

Balinese Hinduism differs from Indian Hinduism in many ways. For example, in Balinese temples there are often no images of God. But for me the most arresting religious image I encountered was the empty chair.

I saw this chair, typically crafted of stone, everywhere in Bali—on streetcorners and mountaintops, and in households and rice fields. It is a shrine to Ida Sanghyang Widhi, the High God to Balinese Hindus. And it symbolizes, among other things, the indescribability of the divine.

Historians say this icon was brought to Bali in the sixteenth century from Java. Religious Studies scholars see some Buddhist influence here, which would not be surprising since Buddhism thrives throughout the Indonesian archipelago that encompasses Bali.

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I saw the empty chair as an invitation—an invitation to reckon with God on your own terms and in your own way. I also saw it as an elegant refusal—a refusal to reduce God to simplistic terms we can understand.

Clint Eastwood has now turned “the empty chair” into a meme of a very different sort. In his speech on Thursday at the Republican National Convention, he argued with an invisible Barack Obama in an empty chair, drawing applause from the audience but upstaging Mitt Romney in the process.

What struck me as I saw this performance was how different Eastwood’s use of the empty chair was from how people use it in Bali.

In Bali, to stand in front of the empty chair is to reckon with your limits, and particularly with what you don’t know. But Eastwood and those who applauded him were driven by hubris, not humility. They claimed to know what Obama would say if he were in fact sitting in that chair, and of course the words they put in his mouth (including profanities) were words of their choosing, not his.

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My point is not that Obama is a God and should be treated with the reverence of one. Far from it. Obama is a human being, and like every human being he has made mistakes.

My point is that, even as religion has moved to the center of American political life, humility has moved to the periphery.

One of the functions of religion has traditionally been to remind us of our limits: we are sinners, and only God is God; we see through a glass darkly, and only God sees face to face. But we have turned that function off.

Today’s political religion puts human beings above God. It turns God into a pawn in our political chess games, brazenly enlisting God's support for our particular policies on tax rates or abortion or the war in Afghanistan.

Once you have accustomed yourself to putting words in the mouth of God, it is pretty easy to start putting words in the mouths of your political opponents. You run not against the real Obama, his words and his actions, but against your own made up “invisible Obama.”

Instead of taking their cues from a Hollywood director, Republicans should follow the example of a great Republican, and perhaps the greatest American, Abraham Lincoln. In the face of a culture war that turned into the Civil War, Lincoln pleaded for a civil politics in both North and South. “We are not enemies, but friends,” he said in his First Inaugural Address. “We must not be enemies.”

In his Second Inaugural, Lincoln humbly confessed his confusion over what God was doing in allowing the Civil War to drag on and take so many lives, only to conclude that “the Almighty has His own purposes.”

Lincoln’s political piety was a faith of the Balinese empty chair—a humble faith that knew its own limits and confessed its own confusion. I’ll take that over Eastwood’s variety any day.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen Prothero.

- CNN Belief Blog contributor

Filed under: 2012 Election • Church and state • Hinduism • Mitt Romney • Politics • United States

soundoff (553 Responses)
  1. Aditya Adhikari

    Just saying: A different form of "Hinduism" a word created by the Arab Traders and defined by Europeans to try and explain what was is and forever will be "Sanatan" One who is forever and pure. True individualism which allows absolute freedom of expression and relation with creator. having said that.

    Your point of view which is so narrow to think the Chairs are empty is not absurd but foolish. it is the belief which manifests the presence of whomever you want to see in the chair be to pray or chide.

    Open your eyes look....

    On a political note: Arrogance was shown by the White house by posting an image of the Chair of the President occupied by Barak Hussien Obama and comment "this Chair is taken" . He forgets even if he is not ousted in this election he has only 4 more years where he can sit there. and this Arrogance is not what I voted for in 2008.

    September 1, 2012 at 12:04 pm |
    • Aditya Adhikari

      And now I can go back to FOX NEWS to get my paycheck for getting on other news posting boards and spreading hatred and contempt. Whew!

      September 1, 2012 at 12:06 pm |
    • Dan Crocker

      Left yet?

      September 1, 2012 at 12:08 pm |
    • dj

      you get paid for that..i was just volunteering..lol

      September 1, 2012 at 12:14 pm |
    • Aditya Adhikari

      A Post using my name was posted by someone stating that I am a paid Fox News impostor. This shows the level the disturb and arrogant people will stoop when they can not defend a point.

      Shame on the person who used my name.

      September 1, 2012 at 4:17 pm |
    • DeeCee1000

      . .The chair is empty so you can bring God down to your mortal creature level. I see. And here I thought the chair was empty for a profound reason. Your God is created by your mind and even sits on a human chair. Other people's God just IS.

      September 1, 2012 at 7:42 pm |
    • sqeptiq

      It's arrogance to state reality? Wow!

      September 2, 2012 at 1:38 pm |
  2. TheyNotHim

    "In his Second Inaugural, Lincoln humbly confessed his confusion over what God was doing in allowing the Civil War to drag on and take so many lives, only to conclude that “the Almighty has His own purposes.”"

    You seem like a pretty smart guy Stephen. You know that Jesus never existed and that your idea of God is just the next in a line of creation myths right? Lincoln knew this so as any good politician should, he passed the buck with a shrug. Please lets just end all of this xtian nonsense okay? Please?

    September 1, 2012 at 12:03 pm |
  3. Jesus Christ

    For once, a truly great article by Stephen Prothero. It's fascinating that so many christians liked this particular author until he said something against their beloved GOP. How brainwashed do people have to be, to blindly follow a party (the GOP) regardless of how it treats it's own members?
    How sad and how typical.

    September 1, 2012 at 12:03 pm |
  4. Stu

    Yes. Clint Eastwood used what is termed, a logical fallacy. http://yourlogicalfallacyis.com/strawman

    September 1, 2012 at 12:03 pm |
  5. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things

    September 1, 2012 at 12:02 pm |
    • ScottCA

      It sure does. Praying to things you have no evidence for existing changes sane people into insane people.

      September 2, 2012 at 12:12 am |
  6. JB

    Evidently this author is the typical liberal living in Fantasy Land. Anytime you involve the liberal scholarly types or lawyers, you create a convoluted image of reality. Geez, people are actually paid to come up with this foolishness?

    September 1, 2012 at 11:57 am |
    • Dan Crocker

      And paid very well too it seems. The scary thing is that these types now outnumber us and can therefore impact what happens to this nation....

      September 1, 2012 at 11:59 am |
    • Jesus Christ

      Oh JB...how typical, as a christian, you are to attack someone that doesn't fit your own ideas. You missed the whole point of Abraham Lincoln, but one can only expect to be kicked by a mule I suppose.

      September 1, 2012 at 12:01 pm |
  7. Pam

    Thank you, Professor Prothero, for telling us about the empty chairs you saw all over Bali. Your thoughts are very enlightening.

    September 1, 2012 at 11:57 am |
  8. Dan Crocker

    The author of this piece could be a shoe in for Woody Harrelson. Lets hope he doesn't imbibe in the whacky tobacky like Woody does.

    September 1, 2012 at 11:54 am |
  9. T

    What Clint Eastwood did was simply humor, nothing more, nothing less. Now it's being politically critiqued in comparison to a religion. I'm not sure which made me laugh more, Clint or the absurdity of this author.

    September 1, 2012 at 11:53 am |
    • Dan Crocker

      Woody, ..... er Stephen was apparently bored, had nothing to do, could find nothing competent to write about, and came up with this. Perhaps it was only done to generate controversy and comment. Who knows but Stephen....

      September 1, 2012 at 11:56 am |
    • Kyle

      he made a comparison with lincoln and other instances in which people have an empty chair, should he have compared it with jewish passover dinners?

      September 1, 2012 at 12:12 pm |
    • brett

      The author makes a false association. A unwarranted comparative. Eastwood was fake talking to a sinful man named Obama. Nothing of God in the transaction. So the author of this article should applaud Eastwood for using the empty chair properly.
      As for the profanity, yes that was off the mark, but not comedically to describe the Obama Biden ticket.
      Theolgians learn exegetical fallacies. The author broke many rules in this article. FALSE ASSOCIATION!

      September 1, 2012 at 12:16 pm |
  10. Dan Crocker

    Notice the ad on the bottom of this page? Don't see any Romney ads at all. Wonder which way this site is leaning.....

    September 1, 2012 at 11:51 am |
    • Jesus Christ

      For pete's sake Dan, go to FOX news if you need Romney adds. Why sit here and complain all day long? Change your life and stop the nastiness.

      September 1, 2012 at 12:05 pm |
    • Dan Crocker

      I thought CNN was a BALANCED news agency. Is that not the case? If we throw stones at FOX, shouldn't we do the same to CNN? Just wondering.

      September 1, 2012 at 12:10 pm |
  11. upwardquest

    Thank you, President Obama for all you've done, in particular, helping me to keep my home. I am voting for YOU!

    September 1, 2012 at 11:51 am |
    • Dan Crocker

      Don't look over your shoulder because the socialist is coming for your share to help the needy who can't work. Or don't want to.

      September 1, 2012 at 11:57 am |
    • David

      Mt taxes are lower, the economy is better not just in the numbers but in my every day experiences and If I want to get health insurance, I can now expect to actually be covered rather then dropped when I get sick. I'm still not voting for Obama but because he's weak in the face of Repub attacks, not due to any mistakes on his part. To be honest, Obama is among the better presidents over the last 30 odd years.

      September 1, 2012 at 3:17 pm |
  12. .

    http://www.cgg.org/index.cfm/fuseaction/Library.sr/CT/ARTB/k/1186/Gnosticism-False-Knowledge.htm

    September 1, 2012 at 11:50 am |
  13. Bill P

    "My point is not that Obama is a God and should be treated with the reverence of one. Far from it. Obama is a human being, and like every human being he has made mistakes.

    My point is that, even as religion has moved to the center of American political life, humility has moved to the periphery."

    Prothero, you have now reached a new low. Consider your hypocritical opine about the loss of humility because of Eastwood's comical derision of Obama, while, I must ask, please dig into your archives, have you ever pointed out Obama's lack of humility?? I am more worried about Obama's haughty spirit than Eastwood's. Your apparent lack of memory of how leadership in the Bible rained down wrath upon a people is not surprising, but still appalling.

    September 1, 2012 at 11:47 am |
  14. Dr. Rick Stoppe

    It is simply amazing how political bias and fundamentalist religion can remove one's sense of humor. Eastwood only suggested foul language from the President. Biden has been overheard to use it. Stay on the real issues. They are not Biden's cursing or Eastwood's attempt at comedy. And the empty chair in Bali has no relevance whatsoever to this election–but it is a wonderful symbol for the One who cannot be defined by man.

    September 1, 2012 at 11:47 am |
    • Dan Crocker

      O'Biden is definitely a whole lot worse than that chair ever could be – no matter what it said or did – or didn't say or do.

      September 1, 2012 at 11:50 am |
  15. Dan Crocker

    The author is making too much out of this. Let's keep it simple shall we? Clint used the chair to poke some fun at Obama. That's it. For those who have a problem with it, too bad.

    September 1, 2012 at 11:47 am |
  16. ScrCoachDM

    Thanks for the alternate view of the "Empty Chair". Just as the cross has different meanings in different cultures, your description of the Hindu use of an everyday object is interesting. However, in American context the empty chair as a stand-in for a person is a commonly used visual tool. Eastwood was plying his craft, nothing more. Too look deeper is to grasp at straws rather than reflect on the substance.

    September 1, 2012 at 11:45 am |
    • Dan Crocker

      Thank you for your insight. Sometimes people try to put too much into things. Keep it simple always works for me.

      September 1, 2012 at 11:48 am |
  17. Zoby

    Romney is a joke, if I was Obama I wouldn't bother either.

    September 1, 2012 at 11:44 am |
    • Dan Crocker

      Romney isn't a joke. He's the best thing we've got to pull this country out of the fire.

      September 1, 2012 at 11:51 am |
    • seth

      Romney is no different then John Kerry... he is going to get smoked because he can relate to no one but hard right Republicans. A president has to pull the middle, Romney has never been middle or poor, he ran an investment firm,he is a running mate with someone that questions women's and workers rights constantly.....our way or the highway doesn't win votes. Also, does anyone really think the Bible belt will vote for a morman???

      September 1, 2012 at 12:19 pm |
  18. and?

    Where I'm from an empty chair means you found a good place to sit down.

    The empty chair also has a great many other meanings to a great many other peoples.

    We could play this game all day.

    September 1, 2012 at 11:43 am |
  19. Everyman

    This is one of the best opinion pieces I have read in a long time. Thank you Stephen for opening our eyes with a new perspective.

    September 1, 2012 at 11:37 am |
    • Dan Crocker

      You're kidding....... right? Right?

      September 1, 2012 at 11:58 am |
    • Everyman

      Not at all Dan. It's tiring to hear religion being used to gain political points.

      September 1, 2012 at 1:19 pm |
    • plight_of_america

      Are you serious?!? Did you even read this article?? It was a thinly veiled political ad for Obama. The author (and CNN) should be ashamed for trying to pass this off as a "Belief" article.

      September 1, 2012 at 3:29 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      @plight,

      Stephen Prothero's contributions are "Op Ed" pieces. You can tell from the t'tle where it starts with "My Take:"

      An "Op Ed" piece is the author's opinion. There's this thing called the first amendment you see. People are allowed to express their opinions.

      In case it is difficult for you, here's the wikipedia definition of "Op Ed":
      An op-ed, abbreviated from opposite the editorial page (though often mistaken for opinion-editorial), is a newspaper article that expresses the opinions of a named writer who is usually unaffiliated with the newspaper's editorial board. These are different from editorials, which are usually unsigned and written by editorial board members.

      September 1, 2012 at 8:46 pm |
    • plight_of_america

      Um, "not a GOPer...", nice post, but completely irrelevant. Scroll to the top of the page... The article is filed under "Belief Blog". As the profile indicates, Stephen "is a regular CNN Belief Blog contributor." I stand by my earlier comment (also MY freedom)...and I never said he was not free to his opinion. I just think he should be more up front with his support of Obama and less deceptive. If you have an opinion and want to speak out in support of your candidate, do it in the Opinion section, NOT the "Belief" blog.

      Like others, I believe Stephen missed the whole point of the empty chair anyway. Clint's effort (admittedly weak or, at least, poorly executed) was to be humorous while making his point. In keeping with the theme of that night, it's possible the empty chair was also meant to symbolize the empty leadership we've received from Obama throughout his tenure...

      September 1, 2012 at 11:06 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      @plight,

      anything that touches on religion end up here on the "Belief Blog" including Op Ed pieces.

      There's no reason why an "Op Ed" piece that combines politics and religion wouldn't go here. Most of them are exactly that.

      September 2, 2012 at 10:13 pm |
  20. therealpeace2all

    FROM THE ARTICLE:

    " You run not against the real Obama, his words and his actions, but against your own made up “invisible Obama.”

    " he argued with an invisible Barack Obama in an empty chair, drawing applause from the audience "

    What struck me as I saw this performance was how different Eastwood’s use of the empty chair was from how people use it in Bali.

    " They(Eastwood, etc...) claimed to know what Obama would say if he were in fact sitting in that chair, and of course the words they put in his mouth (including profanities) were words of their choosing, not his. "

    ---------------------------------------------------

    It was a very pitiful visual display of a "Strawman Argument." What's happened to the GOP nowadays ?

    Peace...

    September 1, 2012 at 11:24 am |
    • .o.

      fu\ck – this is a test

      September 2, 2012 at 11:00 am |
    • .o.

      fu`ck – test2

      September 2, 2012 at 11:02 am |
    • .o.

      @uarr; – test3

      September 2, 2012 at 11:09 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.