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. Buck

    Silly article. These two things have nothing to do with one another. Eastwood never claimed to know what Obama was saying. It was a skit... get over it. I did not enjoy it, and do not agree with some of the messages. But overall, this article is lacking in purpose.

    September 1, 2012 at 6:19 pm |
  2. Ann

    stupid article

    September 1, 2012 at 6:09 pm |
  3. George D. Raynes

    I think these comments are way off track. Religion ?????

    September 1, 2012 at 6:08 pm |
    • DeeCee1000


      September 1, 2012 at 6:17 pm |
  4. Sam

    this is a terrible article.

    September 1, 2012 at 6:08 pm |
  5. Luis Wu

    I thought the empty chair was fitting. To me it symbolizes that Romney is an empty suit.

    September 1, 2012 at 6:08 pm |
  6. Karla Katz

    A REAL statesman would never have responded to a buffoon... of course, a REAL statesman would never bow down to a foreign king, as Zero did.

    September 1, 2012 at 6:03 pm |
    • Prariedoc

      Karla, dear Karla. When are you and the rest of the uninformed going to admit that President Obama never "bowed" to any foreign king or power. There was never an "apology tour", or a, "We're so sorry" junket. Do your research Karla and not in the GOP Extremist Encyclopedia or the Rush Limbaugh History Re-Write Center.

      September 1, 2012 at 6:36 pm |
  7. Sam Yaza

    no offense to any one,. but i totally f4ck3d Rangda

    September 1, 2012 at 5:58 pm |
  8. hammerofastraea

    No, its about "Enjoy The Silence" by Depeche Mode.

    September 1, 2012 at 5:56 pm |
  9. rrmon

    ""I am," I said
    To no one there
    An no one heard at all
    Not even the CHAIR "I am," I cried
    "I am," said I
    And I am lost, and I can't even say why
    Leavin' me lonely” still-Neil Diamond

    September 1, 2012 at 5:33 pm |
    • DeeCee1000

      "I am what I am" said the atoms a million years ago that currently make up my body.

      September 1, 2012 at 5:58 pm |
  10. todd rad

    on the island of bohahati, the zurg religion believes that... blah blah blah y r white people so into this foreign "spirituality" crap. as these werid ass gods fighting and banging and casting spells and crap, eastern religions are as absurd as scientology.

    September 1, 2012 at 5:30 pm |
    • Patrick

      oh, Todd....what a caricature you paint. Please read a book or travel somewhere beyond the bubble of your cliches.

      September 1, 2012 at 5:53 pm |
  11. KindOfAPagan

    This editorial comment based on assumption of a "God" existing.

    September 1, 2012 at 5:29 pm |
    • E=MC2

      Whilst Eastwood was speaking,
      whilst Obama was campaigning,
      whilst author of this piece was writing,
      innocent children were being bludgeoned to death, dying of painful diseases, etc.

      September 1, 2012 at 5:35 pm |
  12. Superior informed all-knowing and most honest TRUTH KING of all the lesser-informed


    September 1, 2012 at 5:28 pm |
    • DeeCee1000

      I like the chair symbol. Why would a Creator God who created the universe as we know it need a chair constructed by human beings for the purpose of sitting like a human being would? The fact that the chair is empty says that this religion's God doesn't use a chair the way a human does. . .or at least that is what followers of this religion believe. It's used as a reminder to followers that their God is other. . . at least that is how I'm interpreting this chair symbol.

      September 1, 2012 at 6:49 pm |
  13. Concerned

    I admire the depth of the article, but want to call attention to a much humbler use of the empty chair–in Gestalt Therapy, started by Fritz Perls in the 1940's. Since Fritz's use of this device, many therapists have found it a useful tool to enable epeople to work through their conflicts and other issues with others who may no longer be living or otherwise unavailable to the person (such as an abusive parent who may have since died). In that context it's not bizarre at all.

    September 1, 2012 at 5:20 pm |
    • Patrick

      Yes, that's what Fritz was doing. Clint was not doing Gestalt Therapy, he simply had an agenda to make someone look bad by putting words in the President's mouth. An article on Fritz and the empty chair and an analysis of Clint and the disillusioned Right in response to the empty chair work would be fascinating.

      September 1, 2012 at 5:56 pm |
  14. Enoch

    So, one day I decided to compare how two entirely different cultures viewed an object and attached meaningless symbolism to it. I was surprised to find they were completely different. They were the same only in that they didn't use the object as intended.

    September 1, 2012 at 4:55 pm |
    • .


      September 1, 2012 at 5:17 pm |
  15. Dr. Gener

    I like this symbol. Out of context probably, I think that other people could benefit from this interpretation. Whether or not you believe in something, think of a driving force that we can all tap into, and/or manifest. One that may bring about outcomes, positive and/or negative. I think this idea of an empty chair represents a theatrical role, an opportunity to take the reins of fate, if only for a bit. Each one of us has a part to play, and can drive opportunity to reach some end. It's up to us though (to an extent) where we take opportunity, how many people we help along the way, whether or not we chose to hurt others to get "ahead." And at the end of our lives, we'll've left an empty chair, with some legacy (throne) for the next person to fill. Ultimately, I see the empty chair as a symbol of the responsibility that we all have to be godly: to make decisions/act out our free will. Whether we chose a path that yields more positive than negative consequences, and how we measure those, is what makes the theatrical part interesting.

    September 1, 2012 at 4:39 pm |
  16. pbernasc

    with stupid people you can do all you want .. now you understand fake, GOD, GOP and Stupidity go all together

    September 1, 2012 at 4:38 pm |
    • stupid followed to its logical conclusion

      becomes atheism

      September 1, 2012 at 4:47 pm |
    • .


      September 1, 2012 at 5:04 pm |
  17. Wastrel

    The empty chair is indeed a compelling image and was used by C. S.Lewis in "The Silver Chair", which I'm sure the author of this article has read. It has some little relevance. The only time the chair is occupied by the Prince is when he is sane, and not under an enchantment. I was impressed by Clint Eastwood's use of the image. It was great theater.. I thought Obama's response, "This seat is taken" was very appropriate to the Republican foolishness (yes, all they did is put words in his mouth) and for some reason, I think that Obama thought of it himself. I could say more but I will forbear; the writer of this article said it all, from a political point of view. Rescue me, before I get too deep, as someone else said.

    September 1, 2012 at 4:35 pm |
  18. Smokey

    While I'm not against religion in politics, I think it's important that religious values work to raise the level of political discourse, as opposed to having politics cheapen religious discourse. Unfortunately it seems that the latter trend is prevalent in America today, and certainly not the former. We should remember Christ's exhortation to "render unto Caesar what is Caesar's and unto God, what is God's." There are so much more important things in life than politics, most of these politicians are interchangeable anyways.

    September 1, 2012 at 4:27 pm |
    • Think about it...

      I am 100% against religion and politics mixing because this is EXACTLY what you get. I don't care what the commander in chief believes about God, it is so personal anyway and really none of our business how or if he/she prays. All religion tries to do is control people thru fear and we have enough of that already without a dose of Fire and Brimstone in the Whitehouse. Religion belongs in Church.

      September 1, 2012 at 8:19 pm |
  19. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    September 1, 2012 at 4:27 pm |
    • Marco Coletta

      Religion is not more healthy for children and other living things then Atheism.

      September 1, 2012 at 4:45 pm |
    • stupid followed to its logical conclusion

      becomes atheism.

      September 1, 2012 at 4:48 pm |
    • .



      September 1, 2012 at 5:46 pm |
    • stupid followed to its logical conclusion


      September 2, 2012 at 10:57 am |
  20. Jim Pot

    Wisely written and well thought out article. It was Lincoln who also said, during the Civil War, when asked about the very divine privilege and licence so many people claim today for their own political cause: “Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side, my greatest concern is to be on God’s side, for God is always right.”

    September 1, 2012 at 4:13 pm |
    • Russell McConnell

      Thanks Jim!

      September 1, 2012 at 4:54 pm |
    • Haggy

      Nice quote imma use that one

      September 1, 2012 at 5:36 pm |
    • Prariedoc

      Well said and thank you!

      September 1, 2012 at 6:38 pm |
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