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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. gep1955

    News flash for you there Mr Prothero, you guys just love to complicate things. You're entire article supposes deep moral soul searching and lifetime of religious reflection went into a 10 minute comedy bit. Hardly. They used a chair because it was easier to set up but still had the same affect as an empty suit because thats what Obama clearly is.

    September 2, 2012 at 9:33 am |
  2. dan

    funny how liberals love to quote Lincoln who was a Republican! and by the way, Obama has pontificated more than any other President in my lifetime so if you are going to preach about hubris in policiticians take a look at your current President!

    September 2, 2012 at 9:30 am |
  3. Tomas

    Its bad enough that religion has to be a part of the elections when we don't even allow it in our schools or work places anymore. And now when I thought I was going to read an insightful article on another culture, I am dissappointed to see that someone has taken Clint eastwood's improve speech and compared it to a religious symbol. Anyone who knows anything about acting knows this is a classic improv technique and not some comparison to God, religion or even Obama's track record as the President. Of course you can read into it all you want but to take his speech and compare it to a country's most profound religious symbol is a disgrace. I am so disgusted. CNN needs to remove this post, Now!

    September 2, 2012 at 9:30 am |
  4. mike daniels

    Go Obama. Good luck on your second term.

    September 2, 2012 at 9:29 am |
  5. MGK64

    Wow... the vitriol in the comments is astounding. I really liked the piece. Nice work, Professor Prothero!!

    September 2, 2012 at 9:25 am |
  6. Joann

    a chair is an invitation to sit, relax, visit and be

    September 2, 2012 at 9:20 am |
  7. Clara Haines

    I just see "empty"

    September 2, 2012 at 9:20 am |
    • gep1955

      Yes, as in EMPTY SUIT.

      September 2, 2012 at 9:35 am |
  8. mike

    You, sir, are an idiot!

    September 2, 2012 at 9:11 am |
    • gep1955

      Dear Mike, how many sleepless nights did you have to come up with a post like that?

      September 2, 2012 at 9:40 am |
  9. Joann

    "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. "

    touché !

    September 2, 2012 at 9:10 am |
  10. Lol

    Yep, Steven, your humility has moved to the periphery. At least you seem tobe an equal opportunity offender.

    September 2, 2012 at 9:03 am |
  11. DAZJ

    The article is not anti-christian at all. In fact the empty chair is found in Christianity also. It is called "The Hetoimasia, Etimasia (Greek ἑτοιμασία, "preparation"), prepared throne, Preparation of the Throne, ready throne or Throne of the Second Coming is the Christian version of the symbolic subject of the empty throne found in the art of the ancient world"-Wikipedia

    and

    "In Early Christian art and Early Medieval art it is found in both the East and Western churches, and represents either Christ, or sometimes God the Father as part of the Trinity. In the Middle Byzantine period, from about 1000, it came to represent more specifically the throne prepared for the Second Coming of Christ, a meaning it has retained in Eastern Orthodox art to the present.[1] The motif consists of an empty throne and various other symbolic objects, in later depictions surrounded when space allows by angels paying homage. It is usually placed centrally in schemes of composition, very often in a roundel, but typically is not the largest element in a scheme of decoration"–Wikipedia

    September 2, 2012 at 9:02 am |
  12. remom52

    Gentle person,
    The two empty chairs cannot be compared to each other and does an great disservice to both.
    One is a selfless act of truth and humility. While the other chair represent the emptiness that has been created by OBAMA
    who is NOT present to the citizen s of this nation.
    One looks directly at oneself. While the other is what the people of this country get when we dare raise our voice against what this power drunk president does. Our words and hopes and dreams go to the empty chair. It would do Presdent OBAMA well to stand before both empty chairs.

    September 2, 2012 at 8:52 am |
    • mike

      "While the other chair represent the emptiness that has been created by OBAMA
      who is NOT present to the citizen s of this nation."

      He was present alright, but you were just not paying attention, because all the while you think it's an empty chair. You accuse him a socialist and the next sentence you accuse him of being a muslim, without any regard that conventional knowledge indicates that socialist are atheist and muslims are theocrats. Mudslinging is the republican party's favorite sport.

      "While the other is what the people of this country get when we dare raise our voice against what this power drunk president does." – How do you quantify power drunk? "Power drunk" is obviously subjective to you. It's bottled up anger for a black young lawyer and "community organizer" (only in the republican party where community organizer is a derogatory word) who was able to reach new heights and be the leader of the white house. White house, I should have known...a dog whistle name for the edifice of leadership in this country.

      September 2, 2012 at 9:28 am |
    • mommabear63

      Oh like Romney and Ryan aren't power hungry, TOTALLY DISCONNECTED FROM THE MAJORITY OF THE CITIZENS OF OUR COUNTRY, and therefore, will never be able to even begin to understand what middle America is going through!!! Please get a reality check and stop blindly following the pied piper just because you don't have the wisdom to think outside the box and challenge yourself to consider All the issues that are at play! I am not blind to see the flaws of both sides and I am trying to study both sides and to be honest it is not an easy task, but as a citizen of this great country has the duty to think of the good of all and not just a few!!

      September 2, 2012 at 9:32 am |
  13. Chas

    When Obama had the religious symbols covered up at Notre Dame, what great spiritual experience overtook you then?

    September 2, 2012 at 8:50 am |
  14. llatpoh

    You guys (C N N) must have stayed up all night trying to figure out how to turn the empty chair into a positive metaphor for Obama... It must be hard, day in and day out, trying to paint Obama as a success vs the unmitigated disaster that he is. Don't worry, all the hard work of your daily fictionalizing of the Obama story will soon be over.

    Then you can begin reporting the facts on a real President.

    September 2, 2012 at 8:41 am |
    • plbogle

      Neither Romney or Obama will bring comfort to your sinful soul.

      September 2, 2012 at 9:42 am |
  15. shut_up

    only fitting that obammy lived in indonesia.. the empty suit sets in an empty chair.........................

    September 2, 2012 at 8:32 am |
  16. shut_up

    this ter d head has an empty brain, why dont you move to bali and take obammy with you?

    September 2, 2012 at 8:30 am |
  17. Independently Faithful

    I often consider how and why but then always remember "the indescribability of the divine." Well done!

    September 2, 2012 at 8:26 am |
  18. Tony T

    An "empty chair" an "empty suit" are the same thing nothing there just like obama and his entire administration.

    September 2, 2012 at 8:16 am |
  19. Ctguy

    Where was this humanity the author has Obama, for bush? This understanding? What happened when bush made a mistake? The left and especially the media slammed him. I guess there is another standard for Obama.

    September 2, 2012 at 8:13 am |
    • mike

      So revenge is another republican virtue now?

      September 2, 2012 at 9:17 am |
  20. CSX

    The unBelief Blog is a CNN prop to attack Christianity and further a political agenda.
    What can be expected from the lost?

    September 2, 2012 at 8:11 am |
    • HWB

      Really a nothing article. Typical of CNN.

      September 2, 2012 at 8:50 am |
    • sam stone

      feeling a bit put upon? don't worry, jeebus notes your sufferring and he will have something special for you

      September 5, 2012 at 4:08 pm |
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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.