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. eroteme

    Maybe an empty chair for a missing empty suit?

    September 2, 2012 at 12:05 pm |
  2. DeeCee1000

    I find people's reactions to this story almost as interesting as the empty chair.

    September 2, 2012 at 11:20 am |
  3. JJM


    September 2, 2012 at 11:07 am |
    • carmen lopez

      You are a ingnorante human been!!!nn

      September 2, 2012 at 11:22 am |
    • John Crofford

      A few corrections:
      "there" not "their"
      "were" not "was" (because you should be using the subjunctive)
      "drivel" not "dribble"

      September 2, 2012 at 1:03 pm |
  4. Thomas

    Humility .

    Shadow Puppets with out the gamelan music.

    Thank you , great story .

    September 2, 2012 at 10:47 am |
  5. ramajr2

    thanks for providing an interesting view point about how God has been secularized and how we human beings are lacking the humility that can make this world, and this country a better place to live.

    September 2, 2012 at 10:45 am |
  6. Nicole

    What a beautiful article. It's sad that many people wont see the wisdom and truth in it, and understanding what he is trying to say doesn't mean you have to ascribe to any religion or political ideology.
    If people would just come to truly understand one thing; that we just don't know everything, then we'd all be a lot better off.

    September 2, 2012 at 10:40 am |
    • sqeptiq

      Those people aren't interested in truth; they prefer Stephen Colbert's truthiness, not the objective reality of truth but what feels like it ought to be truth.

      September 2, 2012 at 10:47 am |
  7. HouseofDavid

    I too have been to Bali, as well as several other Indonesian countries. Amazingly back in the 60 I was told the empty chair you speak of was a symbol that all men have a need for rest. And a time of contemplation, and that they need to look at their inner selves to allow oneness with all things... My take on the Eastwood empty chair, was only intended to signify the People Speaking but the leader not hearing them, hence talking to an empty chair. I saw no religious connection at all, it took one far more enlighten then I to add yet another separation between America's Peoples, thanks, as if we do not have enough problems. To try and tie Christianity to Balinese Hinduism, is like trying to compare a child to a viper.

    September 2, 2012 at 10:37 am |
    • John Crofford

      Is God revealed only through the Bible? Historically, Christians have believed that Creation itself bore the Maker's mark and that the Holy Spirit went into the world to prepare the hearts of all men. What better preparation than a willingness to accept wisdom where it can be found? The Holy Spirit does not prepare people to accept a hypocritical Christianity and so, as long as the Church refuses to be Christlike, people like Gandhi (a Hindu) will continue to not be Christians.

      September 2, 2012 at 1:20 pm |
  8. CarrotCakeMan

    Go right ahead and claim that your dirty little deity is supporting your political aims, GOP apologists. Nothing will eliminate religious participation in America faster. The GOP's misuse of religion has already caused a collapse in religious participation.

    September 2, 2012 at 10:35 am |
    • Thomas

      Really. The left's entire agenda is go after Conservatives on the misinterrupted grounds of spearation of church and state. The ACL is locked in a 10 year battle to get a single cross removed from out in the middle of nowhere in the desert because it is on government land. Christian soilders erected it and the army is not promoting any religion it just happens to be on government ground.

      Things like that is why relegion is front and center in politics, not because the GOP is trying to get political mileage out of religion.

      September 2, 2012 at 11:11 am |
    • Rational Libertarian

      I'm not on the left, and I can tell you that there is no misinterpretation (I'm assuming you meant misinterpreted) regarding the separation of church and state. It's the religious right which either misinterprets or purposefully misrepresents the separation of church and state.

      September 2, 2012 at 1:44 pm |
  9. Paco

    The chair was empty (no god there), just like the heads of everyone in that audience. God is an adult version of any kid's imaginary friend so let's not get carried away by complex meanings here; it was just a bunch of ignorant people listening to a great movie director rambling for 12 minutes.

    September 2, 2012 at 10:28 am |
  10. Reality

    Only for the new members of this blog:

    And "Prof" Stevie P again "sits" in judgement but who cares what he professes since he refuses to be honest about his own beliefs, something all religious "experts" should do before pontificating.


    September 2, 2012 at 10:23 am |
    • sqeptiq

      New American Standard Bible
      11 For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the spirit of the man which is in him?

      You should look up hubris.

      September 2, 2012 at 10:51 am |
  11. PeterDM

    Quite frankly, hubris IS The American Way. To hear Republicans babbling on about "Exceptionalism" in the face of a America & a world which is quite different than it was 50 or 100 years ago is embarrassing. As long as the United States prefers to indulge in the same old self-congratulatory cliches rather than objective self-analysis, it will never improve.

    September 2, 2012 at 10:18 am |
  12. mred

    This is God, I do not endorse any dating site over another. Now, back to your regularly scheduled television shows.

    September 2, 2012 at 10:04 am |
  13. arapikos

    "A chair is just a chair" No, it is not ! The article will not reach all of us, but I got it!

    September 2, 2012 at 10:00 am |
  14. conniek5256

    i thought his wife just got up and left her seat out of boredom...

    September 2, 2012 at 10:00 am |
  15. Chad

    I saw the empty chair as an invitation—an invitation to reckon with God on your own terms and in your own way.

    The real God (the God of Abraham), is quite different.
    unlike the empty chair inviting people to invent their own version, the God of Abraham is a real "person" (for lack of a better term), and it's his way or the highway.

    September 2, 2012 at 9:57 am |
  16. Mei

    Reminds me of when the Apostle Paul in New Testament finds among the pagans the statue to the "unknown god"–I guess just in case they forget one (since they had so many). The Apostle proclaims how the One, True God is the only God. Indeed, Jesus (the Second Person of the Trinity) came to earth to proclaim the Truth. Eventually the Truth will come to all people, whether at the end times or at death. Christians around the world pray for all souls, including those who never knew Jesus and His Word. The empty chair to me symbolizes the missing link–the God they do not yet know in their Hinduism but someday, everyone will know. On a Sunday–the holy day for all Christians–it is best to talk about Jesus 🙂

    September 2, 2012 at 9:55 am |
    • bobster26

      why do you all believe in superstision. (1) creat a god to make everyone feel good, (2) Control the masses(king/queen). if thier was a jesus, he probably went to the far east and was taut everything he knows.i like the empty chair, there is no face on it or body of power. only you and the empty chair to talk with.kinda like your own CONSCIENCE!

      September 2, 2012 at 10:19 am |
  17. treblemaker

    People in America have NO CLUE-the mind is the devil's playground. True humility is more powerful than any hubris, and it comes only from the heart, where love resides. True faith and organized religion are oxymorons.

    September 2, 2012 at 9:54 am |
    • SuZieCoyote

      So, ummm, stop thinking? Right.

      September 2, 2012 at 11:26 am |
    • Rational Libertarian

      "The mind is the devil's playground".

      Possibly the most retarded statement ever uttered.

      September 2, 2012 at 1:41 pm |
  18. Mikky_H

    An excellent article, sir! Even as an atheist I can respect the symbolism and humility of the empty chair in Bali. Thank you for enlightening me!

    September 2, 2012 at 9:40 am |
  19. Billf

    His main premise is basically a given for most Republican and some Democrats but u fail to understand the point once again. It's sad to see a once great country fail, but I suppose it is inevitable once it becomes filled with the laziest, dumbest people on the planet.

    September 2, 2012 at 9:37 am |
  20. Cornelia

    So relieved to read the comments ( a lot of sensible people here in America are voicing out their thoughts re: this article) following this plastic fantastic comparison of chairs used in the east and the west -a chair is just a chair - like Dionne Warwick sang...people in America know their minds now and hand manipulation of religion in every way possible is out the door. CNN or no CNN.

    September 2, 2012 at 9:36 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.