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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. mama kindless

    I like the destination Prothero seems to want to take the reader of his article. And maybe it makes sense to him – we all sometimes associate odd things that we see and read about that may have at least a visual similarity. But if I were him, I would have just stuck with the chair as used by Clint as a theatrical device rather than bring this Bali chair into his article, which even as he more or less said, is pretty unrelated in purpose. But then, if they had followed my advice, then it wouldn't be here in the Belief section either, but rather under politics or entertainment.

    September 1, 2012 at 9:39 pm |
  2. 1OftheSheep

    In Texas, a person deemed all talk and no action may find themselves colorfully described behind their back as "All hat and no cows". In business, those unable to fulfill the absolute requirements of their job description are routinely and disparagingly referred to by competent others as an "Empty Suit".

    Eastwood's "empty chair" is a perfect and subtle parable to draw appropriate attention to Obama's inability to be the effective leader America so desperately needs if we are to lead the world forward by personal example into the "new economic normal" of an information age.

    My take on Mr. Prothero's incredible comparison to Bali's "empty chair" reminds me that "To a man with only a hammer, everything looks like a nail"!

    September 1, 2012 at 9:31 pm |
    • mama kindless

      OK, well I see your point here. In light of that, I might see that he was more effective than I initially thought he was. But then I would also see that he is deluded like much of the population into a category that I call "expects beyond what is possible". With our current population size and the world economic situation, and demands for everything on all levels including natural resources, people are expecting too much change in too short a period of time. I don't care what party you are in, you are not going to see any big change in anything even in eight years – even if the senate were more in favor of the president. Americans are fooling themselves to think otherwise. So in that light, aside from Mr Eastwood's theatrics, he is really just another impatient American fuddy duddy.

      September 1, 2012 at 9:50 pm |
  3. Jerry Hoefen

    maybe what empty chair represents is failure of American people to get involed with goverment.Evil flusishes when good people stand by idle . Chair represents failure of American people to insure the next generation has same benfits if not better then we enjoyed. Right now don't look pretty for next generation when we have bunch selfish me generation in control

    September 1, 2012 at 9:30 pm |
  4. Pah

    Prothero shows us his utter cluelessness and sheer inability to write consistently.
    For all his traveling, he shows us he is just pretending to research other religions.
    And for all the excellent arguments against his articles amongst the thousands of comments over the years, he still talks like a stupid idiot about a god he knows nothing about, never hears from, and who never existed.
    All the proof in front of his face...and all we get are more pathetic articles that a third-grader could have written in sunday school.

    Prothero, when you get a clue or are willing to work hard...oh, never mind. You will never do those things.

    September 1, 2012 at 9:06 pm |
    • MySay500

      Most do not agree with your assessment.

      September 1, 2012 at 9:15 pm |
    • Rational Libertarian

      Who does hear from god? Apart from mentally deranged people obviously.

      September 1, 2012 at 9:22 pm |
  5. Hasai

    Let me get this straight: The author is equating a prop in a humorous skit to a religious icon?

    I have two theories here:
    1) The author had to publish *something* this quarter or be be dropped off the retainer list, or....
    2) The Left is getting really, really desperate.

    September 1, 2012 at 9:01 pm |
    • Rational Libertarian

      Probably a combination of both.

      September 1, 2012 at 9:02 pm |
    • charles bowen

      humor? defined? or ? Charles Bowen Solomon Stone

      September 1, 2012 at 9:06 pm |
    • mcp123

      "The Left is getting really, really desperate."

      Considering the polling...and the complete lack of any substance to your convention. I don't think we have much to worry about.

      September 1, 2012 at 9:58 pm |
  6. lemme guess

    Prothero is a liberal? that was not too hard to guess.
    You accuse others of the very same thing you are guilty of, and that is, to use God to suit your own selfish agenda.

    September 1, 2012 at 9:00 pm |
  7. Ed M.

    An empty suit on the island of Yap symbolizes the Ineffable Nature of Cheese.

    September 1, 2012 at 8:59 pm |
    • charles bowen

      Finally someone who makes perfect sense...... Charles Bowen Solomon Stone

      September 1, 2012 at 9:04 pm |
  8. 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 1, 2012 at 8:53 pm |
  9. Rational Libertarian

    I'm an idiot.

    September 1, 2012 at 8:51 pm |
    • save the world and slap some sense into a christard today!

      If this is the real RL, then no you aren't; otherwise, yes you are... lol

      September 1, 2012 at 8:53 pm |
    • Rational Libertarian

      Thank you save the world, and thank you fake RL. I'm flattered.

      September 1, 2012 at 8:59 pm |
  10. Rational Libertarian

    Sorry for being a retard, I'm the d*bag.

    September 1, 2012 at 8:50 pm |
  11. Sal

    Really? Are we going there? The empty chair was meant to be humorous . No one owns the empty chair and can be used as anyone sees fit. I am not going to vote republican this year but come on..., enough is enough.

    September 1, 2012 at 8:44 pm |
  12. Jack Stewart

    Every American should have to read this before they enter a voting booth. This is not about Republicans and Demacrats it is about the whole political system.

    September 1, 2012 at 8:37 pm |
  13. charles bowen

    I have known Clint For many many years and For A few Dollars More He'll say anything you want to hear.....Charles Bowen Solomon Stone

    September 1, 2012 at 8:36 pm |
  14. Rational Libertarian

    If Clooney or one of the other liberal d.ouchebags had done the smae thing vice versa, the liberal blogosphere/media would be hailing it as inspired.

    September 1, 2012 at 8:27 pm |
    • Bill

      If Clooney had done it, it would have been better executed!

      September 1, 2012 at 8:36 pm |
    • Rational Libertarian

      It couldn't possibly have been done better. From a neutral's point of view who hates both Republicans/Democrats equally, he nailed it perfectly.

      Also, Clooney is a D.OUCHE.

      September 1, 2012 at 8:46 pm |
    • OrganicManLives_N_anOraganicUNiverSE

      well it would be ...wouldn't it!

      September 1, 2012 at 8:48 pm |
    • Rational Libertarian

      I'm a dou*he too y'all, it's clear to see.

      September 1, 2012 at 8:51 pm |
    • Really-O?

      I watched Mr. Eastwood's address and, actually, it made me bit disheartened – he seemed to me not much more than a doddering old man. That isn't a comment on his message (which I also thought was rather weak), just his visage.

      September 1, 2012 at 8:52 pm |
    • charles bowen

      Is that Visa Vie or Vice Versa? Ok I'll give you inspired, although i not sure who or what is providing the inspiration....Any Republicans Got a Clue? I thought not..... Charles Bowen Solomon Stone

      September 1, 2012 at 8:53 pm |
  15. Karm99

    One of life's most divine experiences is to know God.

    One of the scariest is to hear "God is on my side"

    September 1, 2012 at 8:20 pm |
    • Rational Libertarian

      Knowing Santa is a pretty wonderful experience also.

      September 1, 2012 at 8:22 pm |
    • Rational Libertarian

      I was just being a moron, I'm sorry.

      September 1, 2012 at 8:53 pm |
    • Rational Libertarian

      Immitation is a form of flattery. Thank you.

      September 1, 2012 at 8:58 pm |
  16. alex

    In a not so distant future, where politics can be more inclusive, and democratized by on line feedback systems, the empty chair will be a symbol of the presidency occupied by the collective being. The letters "US" will stand for something totally subjective.

    September 1, 2012 at 8:16 pm |
    • Rational Libertarian

      On line democracy? No thanks.

      September 1, 2012 at 8:21 pm |
  17. Peter

    Clint has a new movie coming out also and no doubt wants people to come and see it. Hey Clint, no script? Do you have the new movie on your mind? What would Ayn Rand do in this situation.
    The Vedic people could see this coming. They would call Clint's Dharma self interest. He is a smart man.

    September 1, 2012 at 8:16 pm |
  18. Independent & not brain washed

    What the Heck nonsense is rambling on about and why is he bringing Obama in to this.

    September 1, 2012 at 8:10 pm |
  19. jpne

    Really?!? The Dems represent the republicans as pushing grandma off a cliff or killing their spouse and somehow talking to an empty chair is repugnant?

    September 1, 2012 at 8:07 pm |
    • MySay500

      It was. The profanity was not necessary. However, speaking in that language seems to be well understood by the attendees. That is there language of choice apparently.

      September 1, 2012 at 9:22 pm |
    • Rational Libertarian

      Their.

      Also, What profanity? And what's wrong with profanity?

      Liberals need to calm down. So many liberals are turning into opposite Glenn Becks.

      September 1, 2012 at 9:26 pm |
  20. Think about it...

    Until the GOP "divorces" the fanatical christian taliban that infiltrated the party I will never vote Repub again.

    September 1, 2012 at 8:04 pm |
    • Rational Libertarian

      Sorry, I drank too much Kool Aid before posting those other comments. I know, I'm an idiot.

      Agreed though on the fake Christian Republicans who's God is greed: "No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money. – Matthew 6:24.

      September 1, 2012 at 8:49 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.