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. Peter

    The empty chair is often given to a spirit or to the departed.

    September 1, 2012 at 8:03 pm |
  2. Patrick

    Its a far stretch to connect the two symbolic chairs, and several holes in his argument, but nicely stated nonetheless and gives us a good reminder to consider the bigger picture.

    September 1, 2012 at 8:00 pm |
  3. tingle007

    sooooo we sould pray to obama rather than criticize him?

    September 1, 2012 at 8:00 pm |
    • Rational Libertarian

      That's the liberal mentality.

      September 1, 2012 at 8:04 pm |
    • Think about it...

      Didn't bother to read the article, huh?

      September 1, 2012 at 8:05 pm |
  4. Thebetty

    Van Gogh had an empty chair too – it symbolized his friend who had abandoned him............if you're going to make correlations you should at least stick to a familiar culture –

    September 1, 2012 at 7:57 pm |
    • Think about it...

      Ooooh yah, because it's so bad to think about anything foriegn. Too scary to contemplate that a Christian might prefer Hinduism?

      September 1, 2012 at 8:07 pm |
  5. gwenkraft

    Since Clint's talk I've enjoyed re-watching the video several times and have begun seeing some more universal and subtle messages... or I could have been projecting my own thoughts. Thank you for this interesting article. I love learning new information and exploring mind-stretching ideas. There is nothing like ideas and thinking, and new perspectives, to make life stimulating. l "Thinking is the best way to travel," sang the Moody Blues.

    September 1, 2012 at 7:54 pm |
  6. ScottCA

    You should have said "The unknown" not god. The moment you use the word god to explain a thing, you are making a claim of something that you have no evidence of existing.

    You also are making immense claims about the unknown that you have no evidence to substantiate them. Follow reasons and logic to their conclusions and you will be able to free yourself from the preconceptions of faith based religion.

    September 1, 2012 at 7:51 pm |
  7. Sweetc

    Just another scholar with an opinion. BTW – Hinduism has been around longer than Christianity. And Obama has not lived up to his promises. Next.

    September 1, 2012 at 7:22 pm |
    • GMC123

      " Obama is a human being, and like every human being he has made mistakes. "

      Yes, we've all made mistakes....I don't know about you, but even putting all my mistakes together-I haven't hurt millions of ppl over and over. I respect someone that can own up to their mistakes...but he's like beating a dead horse....he never admits it and keeps going trying to make his mistake make sense.

      September 1, 2012 at 8:09 pm |
  8. R. Hormigo

    Nice article, totally agree, but I would replace God for "unknown", for what God effectively is. I feel, these chairs in Bali are a great metaphor of what we humans know. As we try to fulfill that space with some knowledge... we come even emptier.

    September 1, 2012 at 7:21 pm |
  9. Bernie

    "Lighten-up, Francis (Stephen)!"

    September 1, 2012 at 7:16 pm |
  10. Rational Libertarian

    Eastwood is an absolute genius. The liberal blogosphere's reaction is proof of that.

    September 1, 2012 at 7:13 pm |
    • charles bowen

      He did'nt make my day but The Big "O" is smileing all the way to the White House for Another Four.....Thanks

      September 1, 2012 at 7:28 pm |
    • Rational Libertarian

      Obama is a d.ouchebag, but then again, so is Romney. It's lose/lose.

      Eastwood was spot on in everything he said though. If liberals weren't so touchy about their Fuhrer also, they would have actually been able to listen to what Eastwood actually said. He ripped the Republicans as much as he did Obama.

      September 1, 2012 at 7:36 pm |
  11. dc

    This was a REALLY dumb story, comparing the two chairs. CNN, you were REALLY reaching on this one!

    September 1, 2012 at 7:12 pm |
  12. Jessup Germaine

    INDIA: On a Goat and a Stick:

    The problem with India is that is built on a system of cultural and societal values based on Hinduism which is a cult. Nations built on a cult seldom survive in the long run. You can only take it so far based on symbolisms of a goat and a stick with a skinny little man aka Mahatma Gandhi banging boys at night and spinning wheels during daytime.

    September 1, 2012 at 7:05 pm |
    • alscru

      Huh? India and Hinduism have both been around far longer than America, Christianity/Judaism.

      September 1, 2012 at 7:09 pm |
    • charles bowen

      Ah you know nothing of this religion most christians dont... Me thinks you are perhaps a sorry little nit mate Have a nice Day and do try to educate yourself before you spew your tripe.... Best Regards to all. Charles Bowen Solomon Stone

      September 1, 2012 at 7:23 pm |
  13. Kevin

    Mr. Prothero did you happen to run that interpretation past Mr. Eastwood? Is that what he intended the message to be with regards to pulling religion into politics? After all it was his idea to do this skit right? Is this what he meant or did someone totally miss the mark. Could it have been more along the lines of "The lights are on but know one is home"? who knows perhaps we need to ask Mr. Eastwood..... Oh hang on hold the phones......my doughnut has the shape of the virgin Mary in it's glaze covering let me call the Vatican. Sometime its easy to see something in EVERY day things when we want to see it.

    September 1, 2012 at 7:02 pm |
  14. lyndafrances

    When I woke up this morning, I was still in the USA and not in Bali. Eastwood was memorable and the RNC.
    God Bless him and the USA..we will need it

    September 1, 2012 at 6:59 pm |
  15. mike tilling

    Just like religion humans can interpret a situation to suit their agenda
    Most of these comments are personal viewpoints with personal bias. Whatever Clint's agenda it was entertaining, original and ironic.

    September 1, 2012 at 6:58 pm |
  16. Kathleen

    Loved Stephen Prothero's article! Finally some sanity in a world gone mad! The way Eastwood gave his presentation made him look like a very small man – it was beneath his dignity. Until now I have always admired his films, now I will not pay one cent toward anything he does. Shame on you Clint and shame on the GOP for their smoke and mirrors.

    September 1, 2012 at 6:53 pm |
  17. BTW rock and hardplace

    The problem is that Obama chided Bush on Bush's failings.. and then proceeded to fail just as bad if not worse. I hope the Republican party does not fall into the same trap of not honestly addressing the problems that we currently have that the Democratic party did. Unfortunately with Eastwood's act, it doesn't look good. I guess both parties forgot Perot who did a better job of 'telling it like it is'.. and being honest that there would be pain for everyone.. and that we have to be fair about it.

    September 1, 2012 at 6:43 pm |
    • Jesus Christ

      Oh yeah BTW, Obama failed as badly as Bush...NOT even close! Bush put American back decades in schooling, military and medical as well as handing money over to the airlines, insurance companies and wall street, LONG before Obama came alone. You republicans have the shortest memory span.

      September 1, 2012 at 6:46 pm |
    • Patriot00

      If people think 8 years of failed policies can be turned around in 3 years it is just not realistic.

      September 1, 2012 at 6:48 pm |
    • Patriot00

      8 years of Bush not equal to 4 years of obama

      September 1, 2012 at 6:49 pm |
  18. Richard

    None of the media nerds gets the chair thing. He was not talking to the chair. He was talking as if obamadoofus was sitting there. Nothing more, nothing less. We smart folks got it.

    September 1, 2012 at 6:40 pm |
    • Gigiatro

      Well, yeah. You geniuses can carry a discussion only if nobody is talking back.

      September 1, 2012 at 6:47 pm |
    • save the world and slap some sense into a christard today!

      I think everyone got the idea and technique used. But it seems plenty thought he was not very funny trying to pull it off.

      September 1, 2012 at 7:13 pm |
  19. save the world and slap some sense into a christard today!

    God looked down at Obama and said "you are not too bad – you are after all, like all men, are my son".

    Then God looked down at the RNC whilst Clint was having his fun and shook his head and said: "the chair is not my son".

    September 1, 2012 at 6:36 pm |
  20. Ivanhoe

    why not use a toilet so one can discuss with the Toilet Jinni alas - Tales from the East: Toilet Jinni Un-Flushed by Toilet Jinni.

    September 1, 2012 at 6:28 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.