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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. yo¡

    I was also in Bali as a tourist and and whenever I got tired walking around I sat in an empty chair.

    September 1, 2012 at 2:36 pm |
    • Alien Orifice

      Oops, I thought they were toilets. My bad.

      September 1, 2012 at 2:54 pm |
    • Theend

      You would have had to climb to the top of a shrine to sit in most of the Lotus thrones...

      September 1, 2012 at 3:58 pm |
    • knucklehead

      How do you think he got so tired?

      September 1, 2012 at 5:48 pm |
    • Theend

      Yeah, climbing to heaven would be exhausting for some...

      September 1, 2012 at 10:01 pm |
  2. Les Too

    Mr. Eastwood is a dottering old fool. And the Bali "missionary" is an idiot. Since the Mormons do NOT evangelize non-Xtians, this speech and reference is clearly an embarrassment to Mr. Romney. The POTUS has a good record as commander in chief and his foreign policies have yielded success time after time. His apparent domestic failure can be squarely in the laps of the Republican House, who have been obstructionists since day one. If the GOP does not give him a bill to sign, there is nothing accomplished. We are in the position we are in because the GOP has put us there. Period.

    September 1, 2012 at 2:34 pm |
  3. Badboy

    Eastwood also said it is okay to let someone go if they are not doing their job. So collectively we can all tell Obama, "Your'e fired!"
    My vote will be for that purpose! Get someone in their who doesn't blame all his failures on everyone/everything else!

    September 1, 2012 at 2:33 pm |
    • Dan

      If that's the case, why didn't we "fire" Bush back in '04?

      September 1, 2012 at 2:39 pm |
    • Les Too

      The president's "job" is to deal with foreign powers. The House and Senates job is to deal with domestic issues, The Republican controlled House is obstructionist and is the primary source of the majority of our problems with their disingenuous support of the military industrial complex. If they don't give him a bill to sign, he is powerless to do anything domestically. The best salvation for the US is to reelect the POTUS and vote the obstructionist Republican house out of a job.

      September 1, 2012 at 2:43 pm |
  4. Unenrolled in Massachusetts

    I liked this article. It speaks to the one thing that is missing in he country today and that is the ability to be humble and understand that we are all in this together. I would like to be a republican and I would like to be able to support Romney. However the fact that they are buiding their campaign on lies, I find it hard to be supportive of them. This does not mean that I will support Obama, because he and the democrats have their failings as well. Most likely I will vote for the Livertarian candidate whoever that may be.

    September 1, 2012 at 2:26 pm |
    • Stephen Prothero

      I am with you on that. I like liver too.

      September 1, 2012 at 2:37 pm |
  5. Thomas Kee Haskins

    I really enjoyed your article and it's unique perspective. I was drawn to the article because of the picture and it's view. I initially thought "what a great place to sit and view the world" It would also be a great place to rest from the long hike up the mountain. After reading the article and learning that it was a shrine to a Hindu god i realized that you probably wouldn't want to sit in it. It would probably be an insult to the local people who put it there.

    September 1, 2012 at 2:25 pm |
    • Stephen Prothero

      Thank you very much. I hope I can touch a few people from time to time. The blog tends to attract a lot of folks who just want to play argue everything rather than having honest discourse. You make feel like I am not such a dip-s.h.i.t afterall.

      September 1, 2012 at 2:32 pm |
  6. Theend

    Thank you Mr. Prothero for a very insightful article. After reading it I recalled our visit to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. where the solitary figure of President Abraham Lincoln sits in a stone chair in contemplation...

    September 1, 2012 at 2:24 pm |
    • Stephen Prothero

      You are welcome. Lincoln? You mean the car company?

      September 1, 2012 at 2:49 pm |
    • Theend

      Car Company? Lincoln is made by the Ford Motor Company, isn't it? There is another empty chair of President Abraham Lincoln in the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan that is symbol of what happens when civil politics in the United States fails - the red rocking that Lincoln was sitting in at the Ford's Theater when he was assassinated...

      September 1, 2012 at 3:52 pm |
  7. Kay

    Such an indepth critique of something that was amusing and entertaining. Why is everyone losing their sense of humor? And why can't we laugh without analyzing everything?

    September 1, 2012 at 2:15 pm |
    • Hour of Power

      I feel it would be wise for everyone to take a long deep breath and accept and understand that there are many differing views in this world. We may not understand the grand limitations of non-Christians, but we can certainly stroke the fantastic stiff beauty of what it is to be truly aroused by it.

      September 1, 2012 at 2:53 pm |
  8. The Bottom Line

    The empty chair is a perfect metaphor: There is nothing there but what you imagine . . . even if you imagine it to be beyond your imagination.

    Clint should have put a straw man in his chair, for that is what he really was doing – a graphic fallacy.

    September 1, 2012 at 2:12 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      @The Bottom Line

      The empty chair is in your brain dummy *cough* Scotty. You were thrown off the other sites for running off all the Christians. I let your twelve-year-old daughter smoke at the dinner table in front of her kids. Blame it on the Christians for having the guts to tell idiots God's truth.

      Amen.

      September 1, 2012 at 2:18 pm |
    • The Bottom Line

      The empty chair can be a metaphor for Heaven Sent's brain too – nothing there either!

      September 1, 2012 at 2:23 pm |
    • The Bottom Line

      Oooops! Fell for a Poe. Damn it!

      September 1, 2012 at 2:24 pm |
  9. Melissa

    I understand your meaning but in fairness to Mr. Eastwood I think he is fed up with promises and spoke from his heart which isn't tollerated in todays society. We overthink everything unlike his generation who were men of action. Actions speak loudly and the current President must stand on his record; a record of gross over spending, political massacre of one anothers ideas, and an economy that is quickly ruining the middle class American. We can not afford another 4 years of this kind of politics. Maybe Mr. Obama has not used the terminology to go...yourself but his policies clearly have.

    September 1, 2012 at 2:08 pm |
  10. Peik

    Stephen Prothero is a mystic and an imbecile. The Founding Fathers would not recognize him as an American.

    September 1, 2012 at 2:07 pm |
  11. HeavenSent

    Keep believing the lies of the talmud and see what happens when Jesus let's go of your hand because it is slippery with wetness. My toilet has been broken for six months but that's ok I can't get up anyway. Every day on these articles I have the courage to tell the truth of Jesus' truth even though you athiests try to embarass me.

    Amen.

    September 1, 2012 at 2:01 pm |
    • therealpeace2all

      @HeavenSent

      ;D

      Peace...

      September 1, 2012 at 2:03 pm |
    • therealpeace2all

      @HeavenSent

      😀

      Peace...

      September 1, 2012 at 2:03 pm |
    • Peik

      Tertullian didn't say "I believe because it is absurd" (Credo quia absurdum), but he said something similar, and that sort of blind faith is required. Does the god who rejected us after our disobedience in Eden now love us because we tortured and killed him? It is absurd and worse, it is evil. Martyrdom of the good on behalf of the wicked is not a moral philosophy; whether it is demanded by Church or Party makes no difference.

      September 1, 2012 at 2:09 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      @Peik

      You are blinded by the lies of your father satan, who is the devil and a liar. You smug atheists do not have the ears to see Jesus' truth. I am again unable to find my lady parts. It is time for you to start your walk with Jesus before you find yourself on the other side of the fence.

      Amen.

      September 1, 2012 at 2:13 pm |
    • Peik

      You are mentally ill. Fix that problem and stop wasting your time and the time of other people.

      September 1, 2012 at 3:41 pm |
  12. Bob Lewis

    Really nice, thoughtful and for once respectful article representing Eastern thought. God is ineffable and indescribable and definitions only limit our understanding.

    September 1, 2012 at 2:01 pm |
  13. 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 ?

    Are they becoming that desperate ?

    Peace...

    September 1, 2012 at 2:01 pm |
  14. Meg

    Clint Eastwood provided comedy where it is most needed–dealing with humorless lecturers on Bali, who have nothing to do with the RNC, the DNC, or American elections.

    September 1, 2012 at 1:59 pm |
    • paperjihad

      Perhaps, but I can't help wonder if it wouldn't have been more appropriate if Mr. Eastwood had put a straw man in the chair rather than leaving it empty.

      September 1, 2012 at 2:14 pm |
  15. ButSeriously

    Does anyone really care what is done in Bali? The meaning came through loud and clear to most Americans. The attacks on Clint have come fast and furious...all very predictable.

    September 1, 2012 at 1:54 pm |
    • paperjihad

      Is not hubris and putting words in an absent person's mouth deserving of criticism?

      September 1, 2012 at 2:10 pm |
    • sharoom

      "The meaning came through loud and clear to most Americans."

      This is the kind of arrogance that I despise. You assume that "most" Americans agree with you and that your ideals and practices are what all Americans should be. Can we please realize that we are not all the same? Right now the country is split roughly down the middle in terms of political ideology. That means "most" can really only be viewed as "half." Please don't assume you hold a monopoly on America.

      September 1, 2012 at 2:13 pm |
  16. Txjew

    Nice. Judaism,too, has the empty chair. The ark of the covenant was god's "mercy seat," his symbolic throne, he sat on the wings of the cherubs. We also have the empty chairs of wise men, like rashi and reb Nachman.

    September 1, 2012 at 1:48 pm |
    • .

      http://www.biblicaljesus.org/index.cfm/fuseaction/basics.tour/ID/11/Prophet.htm

      September 1, 2012 at 2:12 pm |
  17. lostisland

    I just love the faith blog, a daily dose of stupidity to help keep me on the real path of knowledge – science. It also serves to provide me with an insight into the mind of believers and helps me devise logical rebuttals to this type of nonsense.

    September 1, 2012 at 1:46 pm |
    • 0Patrick0

      I'm an atheist, but I always enjoy essays by Stephen Prothero. This one provided a novel angle on a timely moment in politics, whatever one's own might be. One doesn't have to be snide or angry in one's unbelief. I simply do not believe, mostly because I find the leap of faith impossible and untenable.

      September 1, 2012 at 2:35 pm |
    • .

      http://www.bibletools.org/index.cfm/fuseaction/Topical.show/RTD/CGG/ID/16550/Judaism-Secularism.htm

      September 1, 2012 at 3:01 pm |
  18. jungleboo

    @Stephen Prothero: "...My point is that, even as religion has moved to the center of American political life, humility has moved to the periphery...." You crass and ignorant, self-indulgent FOOL. How dare you promote this anti-American philosophy? The American nation is NOT to have a religious center. Separation of Church and State is written into our Const!tution. Thomas Jefferson clearly had no respect for the preachers and teachers of religion. Get lost, Prothero. You are not allowed to change our nation into something of your liking. Not while I'm around.

    September 1, 2012 at 1:45 pm |
    • bahik

      Please try and understand what people are actually writting before you go on those rants. You only make yourself look like an idiot.

      September 1, 2012 at 2:07 pm |
    • Charlie

      No doubt your opinion is 100% true within the confines of your reality. The most important factor in this equation is that your reality has a total population of 1.

      September 1, 2012 at 2:16 pm |
    • Charlie

      Oh yeah, I forgot one thing. There is a way we are all allowed to change the nation into something of our liking. Voting.

      September 1, 2012 at 2:20 pm |
    • markknox

      Clearly the critics posting here have no sense of the irony of their statements, particularly on the subject of "ignorance". It is fun to watch, though.

      September 1, 2012 at 2:21 pm |
  19. Baby Dingo

    That little mentally-disabled vaudeville act would have been more accurate if Clint had been speaking to a straw man in the chair.
    +Bonus honesty points also if Clint had said "Hi, folks! I'm a money-grubbing fascist lecher!"

    September 1, 2012 at 1:43 pm |
    • Txjew

      It was a moment of clarity for me. That Obama the GOP loathes, the Muslim, socialist dictator? That's not the guy who actually occupies the white house. Their talking about the other, invisible Obama only republicans can see. It's the zen-evil Obama. What's the sound of one chair saying "go f&$@ yourself? Only conservatives know"

      September 1, 2012 at 1:53 pm |
    • 0Patrick0

      Hey, Txjew, that is one shrewd observation. I really enjoyed it. Post away.

      September 1, 2012 at 2:38 pm |
    • 0Patrick0

      Hey, Txjew, that is one shrewd observation. I really enjoyed it.

      September 1, 2012 at 2:41 pm |
  20. Jim

    Thats fine you can have Bali if you would please LEAVE! Socialist

    September 1, 2012 at 1:39 pm |
    • Bob Lewis

      There it is, that was inevitable. That's the arrogance and ignorance he's talking about.

      September 1, 2012 at 1:58 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.