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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.

CNN’s Belief Blog: The faith angles behind the biggest stories

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. tuvia

    B"H

    SHALOM, THANK YOU FOR EVERYTHING.
    YOU SHOULD ALL HAVE A GREAT SHABBOS.
    HAVE A GREAT WEEKEND.

    SHALOM, YOM TOV.
    TUVIA

    [youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=947by3X6_RU&w=640&h=360]

    DOES THE CURRENT PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES

    DOES HE AND THE REST OF THE AMERICAN PEOPLE

    WANT THE TORAH?

    DO THEY WANT THE ISRAELITES, THE LEVIHIM AND THE KOHANIM AND DOES THE WORLD AND WILL YOU PLEASE
    ASK MR. ROMNEY, AND HIS CONVENTION THE FOLLOWING QUESTION.

    WE THE ISRAELITES, THE LEVIHIM AND THE KOHANIM
    WE WANT TO GET PERMISSION FROM THE WORLD TO
    BUILD THE 3RD TEMPLE.

    WE WANT TO ADVANCE THE EDUCATION TO THE WORLD
    THROUGH THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA

    THE TEMPLE INSITUTE IN JERSUSALEM WILL HELP THE
    MINISTRY OF EDUCATION IN THE UNITED STATES WITH
    PERMISSION.

    MR. ROMNEY THE FOLLOWING QUESTION IS DIRECTED TO YOU.

    DO YOU MOURN THE DESTRUCTION OF THE SECOND TEMPLE AND WILL YOU ALLOW THE ISRAELITES, THE LEVIHIM AND THE KOHANIM TO SERVE HASHEM IN THE LAND

    PLEASE ASK THE CANDIDATE THE FOLLOWING QUESTION.

    JONATHAN POLLARD HAS SPENT ENOUGH TIME IN PRISON.

    IT IS TIME THAT HE IS PARDONED.

    WILL THE PRESIDENT PARDON JONTATHAN POLLARD ON

    THE PLATFORM OF HUMANITARIANISM

    WILL THE AMERICAN PEOPLE AGREE TO LET
    JONATHAN POLLARD GO BACK TO ISRAEL
    WITH HIS WIFE ESTER AND LIVE THEIR LIVES IN
    ISRAEL ONCE IF POSSIBLE THE PRESIDENT
    AND THE AMERICAN PEOPLE AGREE TO THIS.
    LET MY PEOPLE GO. PLEASE PARDON JONATHAN POLLARD
    MR. PRESIDENT.

    THANK YOU,

    TUVIA

    September 5, 2012 at 1:25 pm |
  2. Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

    A hindu, a buddhist, an atheist, anyone is better than a christian r et ard.

    September 4, 2012 at 9:22 pm |
  3. DoesItMatter

    Who said we are sinners? Considering the article touches upon Hinduism, I can very well say Hindus do not consider themselves to be sinners.

    September 4, 2012 at 3:04 pm |
    • hinduism source of hindufilthyracism.

      Nothing new, no hindu, criminal considers himself to be a hindu, criminal in his hindu Judaism filthy self center ism, secularism, tell us some thing new. Visit http://www.limitisthetruth.com/ to learn more about hinduism, illegality.

      September 4, 2012 at 8:06 pm |
  4. gerald

    ": we are sinners, and only God is God; "
    This is in reality not a true statement. Just because a being is sinless would not make them a god either. It does not even make us human to be sinful. Adam and Eve before the fall were what it was to be fully human in the image and likeness of God. The image was tarnished with sin and needs to be restored through Christ.

    September 4, 2012 at 1:25 pm |
  5. gerald

    surprize surprize stevie didn't like Clint's speech.

    September 4, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
  6. donner

    Go to YouTube and search "Banned Mormon Cartoon" See what Mitt Romney really believes. Then tell your friends

    September 4, 2012 at 9:45 am |
    • ........

      You're a bigot

      September 4, 2012 at 3:25 pm |
  7. hinduism source of hindufilthyracism.

    Empty chair is nothing else but sign of American moral hinduism, bankruptcy, claiming to follow truth absolute by consti tution of USA, but always denying by hindu Judaism filthy self center ism, way of hindu Magi's, tricksters to hind fool humanity. Visit http://www.limitisthetruth.com/ to find out reasons for American hinduism, denial of truth absolute.

    September 3, 2012 at 6:53 pm |
  8. Tim

    http://www.timandjulie.org
    Help us to spread the message of Jesus Christ!
    http://www.timandjulie.org
    Hope and healing in his arms.
    http://www.timandjulie.org

    September 3, 2012 at 2:48 pm |
    • hinduism source of hindufilthyracism.

      Name Jesus is hinduism, fabrication of hindu Jew's, filthy secular s to find truth absolute visit http://www.limitisthetruth.com/

      September 3, 2012 at 6:54 pm |
  9. Who invited me?
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    September 3, 2012 at 12:58 pm |
    • mother of four

      Thank you! I have printed this out to use as trim for my youngest daughter's birthday party!

      September 3, 2012 at 2:10 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      hahaha!

      September 3, 2012 at 2:14 pm |
    • Bill

      The fact that you, a 'non-believer', have spent this much time and energy defaming the Holy Son of God, just adds to the mountain of proof that Jesus Christ is a force that must be reckoned with by every human being. Think about it- do people like you ever take on the Unification Church (the Moonies), the Church of Scientology or their ilk with such venomous wrath? Of course not. Nobody would care because, as you know, they simply don't matter. They're not a threat to you. Christianity, on the other hand threatens the very core of your being. After all, who knows that Christ matters any more than Satan and his frightened little demons? Be it now or later, when you SO wished you'd brought a fire proof suit, you're going to have to deal with Jesus.

      September 5, 2012 at 10:33 am |
    • where does god go for vacation

      @bill. Religion is a force to be reckoned with, but as to the rest of what you say it's only in somebody's mind it isn't real. There is no after-life, so no need to live a life of fear.

      September 5, 2012 at 12:41 pm |
    • jim

      @Bill I bought a bracelet to protect me from evil spirits in Jamaica last year, so I'm all good I don't need Jesus.

      September 5, 2012 at 1:35 pm |
  10. llatpoh

    You guys (C N N) must have worked hard trying to figure out how to turn the empty chair into a positive metaphor for Obama... It must be difficult, 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 3, 2012 at 8:38 am |
  11. oljw00

    The author is WAY OVER-THINKING this...

    The fact is Obama, is an empty suit – or in this case a chair. Nothing deep about that truth, and in fact trying to make the case of his correlation to the Divine is an insult to Divinity.

    He is nothing more than a one-termer who history to which history will not be kind.

    September 3, 2012 at 12:26 am |
    • Right

      November will be so sad for you.

      September 3, 2012 at 2:07 am |
    • John Q.

      The guesser-in-chief will be gone soon and America will be much better off!

      September 3, 2012 at 6:51 am |
  12. John Q.

    Not quite sure what the author is trying to say. He is a very confused bible professor. But I can't wait till Obama's chair is empty. He is one of the worst presidents in American history, and by far the worst since Jimmy Carter.

    September 2, 2012 at 10:13 pm |
    • Pshhh

      Nobody has been as bad or stupid as Bush Jr. since Hoover who blew the hell out of the economy and put us straight into the Great Depression.
      But Obama is similar to Carter in some ways. Like having a Congress that refused to do their jobs, obstructionists everywhere, and being way too conciliatory to rabid right-wing idiots and unwilling to be forceful in his duties.

      Obama will win because he is not as bad as Romney. Seriously, do you really think Romney is an honorable man when he will clearly say and do anything regardless of how bad it might hurt our country?
      Obama is the better man. Not perfect for the job by any means, but one who is more willing to actually do what is good for the American people. Congress is refusing to work on anything but things like anti-gay legislation. They refuse to represent the people and are only working for the big corporations and the richest of the criminals, not the people.
      Should Romney somehow win by cheating, like Bush did, then expect the whole country to collapse completely,, for that is the GOP agenda. You must really hate America to support Romney against Obama.

      September 3, 2012 at 2:12 am |
    • John Q.

      I guess next you will call me a racist for not supporting Obama? Things were bad under Bush, but instead of helping, Obama helped himself (and his friends) and America paid the price for it. Romney is no way the perfect solution, but almost anyone could do better than Obama.

      September 3, 2012 at 6:50 am |
    • billdeacons

      You presume the the President is not succesfully implimenting his goals. Once his agenda is put into perspective, he could be seen as teh most effective President of the modern era. Change has come to America.

      September 3, 2012 at 11:13 pm |
  13. Marie Pichaske

    Inspiring post -I'd like to point out (and doubtless you're heard this already) that the quote about seeing through a glass darkly describes us before and seeing face to face is us after we have matured spiritually.

    September 2, 2012 at 10:06 pm |
  14. Marduk, Time Traveller with a very small rock.

    My very small rock is like a tiny empty chair. It has more substance than this stupid article.

    September 2, 2012 at 8:52 pm |
  15. .o.

    god looked down upon obama and said "he's ok – like all men, he is my son".

    god looked down upon clint eastwood performing for the RNC.
    then god looked at the chair and shook his head and said "the chair is not my son".

    September 2, 2012 at 6:14 pm |
  16. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer really changes things

    September 2, 2012 at 4:45 pm |
    • hal 9000

      I'm sorry "Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things", but you assertions regarding atheism and prayer are unfounded. I see that you repeat these unfounded statements frequently. Perhaps the following book might help you overcome this problem:

      I'm Told I Have Dementia: What You Can Do... Who You Can Turn to... by the Alzheimer's Disease Society
      .

      September 2, 2012 at 5:36 pm |
  17. Reality

    1 Corinthians 2:11

    "For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the man's spirit within him? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God."

    Thoughts of whose god? The god of the Christians?

    The Apostles' Creed- updated in 2012 by yours truly- references used are available- no hubris involved-

    I might believe in a god whose existence cannot be proven
    and said god if he/she/it exists resides in an unproven,
    human-created, spirit state of bliss called heaven.

    I believe there was a 1st century CE, Jewish, simple,
    preacher-man who was conceived by a Jewish carpenter
    named Joseph living in Nazareth and born of a young Jewish
    girl named Mary. (Some say he was a mamzer.)

    Jesus was summarily crucified for being a temple rabble-rouser by
    the Roman troops in Jerusalem serving under Pontius Pilate,

    He was buried in an unmarked grave and still lies
    a-mouldering in the ground somewhere outside of
    Jerusalem.

    Said Jesus' story was embellished and "mythicized" by
    many semi-fiction writers. A bodily resurrection and
    ascension stories were promulgated to compete with the
    Caesar myths. Said stories were so popular that they
    grew into a religion known today as Catholicism/Christianity
    and featuring dark-age, daily wine to blood and bread to body rituals
    called the eucharistic sacrifice of the non-atoning Jesus.

    Amen

    September 2, 2012 at 3:47 pm |
    • ....

      ABSOLUTE BULL SH IT ALERT

      September 2, 2012 at 4:44 pm |
    • ....

      AND NOT ONLY IS IT BUL . .OH WAIT, MOM'S CALLING FROM ANOTHER TRAILER, I HAVE TO PUT THE TRASH OUT

      September 2, 2012 at 5:34 pm |
    • John Q.

      I don't believe that atheists exist....

      September 2, 2012 at 10:10 pm |
  18. Prayer is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer takes people away from actually working on real solutions to their problems.
    Prayer has been shown to have no discernible effect towards what was prayed for.
    Prayer makes you frothy like Rick Santorum. Just go to http://santorum.com to find out more.
    Prayer prevents you from getting badly needed exercise.
    Prayer makes you fat, pale, weak, and sedentary.
    Prayer wears out your clothes prematurely.
    Prayer contributes to global warming through excess CO2 emissions.
    Prayer fucks up your knees and your neck and your back.
    Prayer can cause heart attacks, especially among the elderly.
    Prayer reveals how stupid you are to the world.
    Prayer exposes your backside to pervert priests.
    Prayer makes you think doilies are exciting.
    Prayer makes you secretively flatulent and embarrassed about it.
    Prayer makes your kids avoid spending time with you.
    Prayer gives you knobbly knees.
    Prayer makes you frothy like Rick Santorum. Just google him to find out.
    Prayer dulls your senses.
    Prayer makes you post really stupid shit.
    Prayer makes you hoard cats.
    Prayer wastes time.

    September 2, 2012 at 2:49 pm |
  19. Dirk Diggler

    I felt sorry for Clint. It was an awkward, senile performance.

    September 2, 2012 at 2:43 pm |
    • Rational Libertarian

      I feel awkward for liberals getting their ass kicked by Clint. And if liberals weren't so blinded by rage when anybody calls out their Fuhrer, they'd realize Clint was making digs at the Republicans as well.

      September 2, 2012 at 6:58 pm |
  20. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    September 2, 2012 at 2:08 pm |
    • hal 9000

      I'm sorry "Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things", but you assertions regarding atheism and prayer are unfounded. I see that you repeat these unfounded statements frequently. Perhaps the following book might help you overcome this problem:

      I'm Told I Have Dementia: What You Can Do... Who You Can Turn to... by the Alzheimer's Disease Society

      September 2, 2012 at 2:35 pm |
    • nope

      @hal former phony current phony
      nope

      September 2, 2012 at 2:37 pm |
    • Prayer is not healthy for children and other living things

      Prayer takes people away from actually working on real solutions to their problems.
      Prayer has been shown to have no discernible effect towards what was prayed for.
      Prayer makes you frothy like Rick Santorum. Just go to http://santorum.com to find out more.
      Prayer prevents you from getting badly needed exercise.
      Prayer wears out your clothes prematurely.
      Prayer contributes to global warming through excess CO2 emissions.
      Prayer fucks up your knees and your neck and your back.
      Prayer can cause heart attacks, especially among the elderly.
      Prayer reveals how stupid you are to the world.
      Prayer exposes your backside to pervert priests.
      Prayer makes you think doilies are exciting.
      Prayer makes you secretively flatulent and embarrassed about it.
      Prayer makes your kids avoid spending time with you.
      Prayer gives you knobbly knees.
      Prayer makes you frothy like Rick Santorum. Just google him to find out.
      Prayer dulls your senses.
      Prayer makes you post really stupid shit.
      Prayer makes you hoard cats.
      Prayer makes you smell like shitty kitty litter and leads you on to harder drugs.
      Prayer wastes time.

      September 2, 2012 at 2:49 pm |
    • hal 9000

      I'm sorry "nope", but I do not understand your assertion in the expression "former phony current phony". I do have a robust awareness of telephony. Are you referring to that, nope?

      September 2, 2012 at 3:52 pm |
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About this blog

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.