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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. George

    Many of you are sarcastic about Clint's empty-chair monologue. You should be more concerned about the empty oval office of the last 3.5 years (which is what the empty chair represented; but then, empty heads don't do well with comprehension).

    September 2, 2012 at 12:14 am |
  2. Niklas

    Nice article. I like what you're pointing at. Keep up the good work and don't let the haters get you down.

    September 2, 2012 at 12:09 am |
  3. caesarbc

    I'm pretty sure Clint didn't mean Obama was devine... but here we go with the left... taking things way out of context.

    September 1, 2012 at 11:46 pm |
  4. Autumn

    Stephen Prophero, thank you for this beautiful article, and thanks to the Creator for you. In spite of the hate and meaness in some of the postings here, I thank God that we live in a country where these things can be said and written without fear of reprecussions. Syrians are dying right now for a lot less! And thanks for one more thing–your words have reminded me that as much as I'd like to come up with a snarky comment for those who have thought to trivialize (and even demonize) your article, I'm going to take a few deep breaths and say a prayer for "Bill Hadenough", "Rational Libertarian" and the rest of the folks who apparently didn't understand or perhaps just don't know that there is Something a lot bigger out there than us!

    September 1, 2012 at 11:36 pm |
    • Rational Libertarian

      They're called fat people. Also, who created the creator?

      September 1, 2012 at 11:47 pm |
    • mike

      it seems to me that you should stick with fox news where you are sure to read and be informed of the things you believe, and your opinions can be affirmed. they are sure to stuff that rails against the "liberal mainstream media', or is that the lame stream media? and how the left has screwed everything up in america...

      September 1, 2012 at 11:56 pm |
  5. Virginia Girl

    A bit of an odd approach, perhaps, but Clint said what an awful lot of folks are thinking. His monologue had a lot of truths. Heck – it even had its own teleprompter!

    September 1, 2012 at 11:33 pm |
  6. Bill Hadenough

    Blah, blah,blah, blah. The deseparation of the left to protect a failed presidency is pathetic. You elected a guy with no resume that you knew nothing about, that promised you hope and change and you didn't even have enough of a clue as to ask what that meant. It's hilarious to see CNN have 3 articles on their front page trying to dis Clint Eastwood and in general do damage control and provide propaganda for Obama.......including the main article at the top on the lady that had no health coverage. Why does CNN continue the ridiculous pretense of being a serious and unbiased news organization. Your ratings reflect you obvious bias and will continue that way until people can come to you for serious and balance reporting. You're just a tool for the left and Obama!!!

    September 1, 2012 at 10:57 pm |
    • bptsj

      Blah, blah, blah....

      September 1, 2012 at 11:04 pm |
    • guy

      EMPTY V(ision)

      September 1, 2012 at 11:20 pm |
    • GethetruthW

      Shouldn't you be watching Fox instead ?

      September 1, 2012 at 11:21 pm |
    • Rational Libertarian

      An hour of Fox a day and an hour of CNN a day will do one of two things: strike a balance or make you retarded.

      September 1, 2012 at 11:36 pm |
    • Epica

      Left has CNN and the Right has Fox news. Whine all you like but each side has their own biased news station of choice. Then of course the Right has Eastwood...who seems to be going senile since he was talking to an imaginary person. To be fair...give the Left enough time and they will probably do something just as bad.

      September 1, 2012 at 11:44 pm |
    • Rational Libertarian

      Clint isn't typical right though, he's libertarian. Also, I fail to see how a piece of performance art equates to him becoming senile.

      September 1, 2012 at 11:48 pm |
    • Epica

      True true. Still talking to an imaginary person just sets off alarm bells to me especially at his age.

      September 1, 2012 at 11:51 pm |
    • Really-O?

      @Rational Libertarian –

      If you care to answer, I have a couple of questions for you regarding politics, not metaphysics.

      –Are you a small or large "L" libertarian?
      –What do you see as the most fundamental aspect of libertarianism?
      –How long have you subscribed to the philosophy?
      –Has your libertarian philosophy evolved over time?

      September 1, 2012 at 11:54 pm |
    • Really-O?

      ...that's a few questions, not a couple.

      Cheers

      September 1, 2012 at 11:55 pm |
    • Rational Libertarian

      He may have mumbled a bit, but I'd say that's more physical than mental. He's as sharp as ever. He's still directing and he's acting in an upcoming film for the first time in five years. The guy is a true American hero.

      September 1, 2012 at 11:56 pm |
    • Rational Libertarian

      Really-O

      1- Big L.
      2- No specific aspect really, although abolishing income tax is important to me.
      3-Since I was 20.
      4-Politically, I was very left early in college. Stalin left. Then I became left libertarian. As I've grown older, I've come to appreciate market capitalism more and the limitations that should be placed on government in that area.

      September 2, 2012 at 12:02 am |
    • Really-O?

      @Rational Libertarian –

      Interesting...we're almost polar.

      1) Small "L"
      2) Philosophically, the fundamental function of government is to exert unprovoked force, which is immoral.
      3) ~15 years
      4) I've become more liberal as each year passes. I still believe the function of government is immoral (unprovoked force), but I no longer see the wisdom in trading the authority of central government for the authority of corporations (seriously, haven't all of our eyes been opened a bit by Enron, Goldman Sachs, etc.?)

      Cheers

      September 2, 2012 at 12:11 am |
    • Rational Libertarian

      I think we both adhere to the 'don't thread on me' aspect though, which I actually believe may be the most important aspect of my political beliefs. Everybody should keep their nose out of everybody else's business.

      September 2, 2012 at 12:17 am |
    • Really-O?

      @Rational Libertarian –

      I agree 100%.

      September 2, 2012 at 12:18 am |
  7. Marc in Florida

    Wise comments and a ridiculous monologue with an empty chair reppresenting the commander in Chief, President Obama. How Clint Eastwood got mixed up in such a farce is beyond me. Contrary to many beliefs there are hard core conservatives among out talented actors and actresses. They should stick to their craft.

    September 1, 2012 at 10:53 pm |
    • Rational Libertarian

      But it's OK for liberal d.ouches like Clooney and Robbins to go spouting their BS?

      September 1, 2012 at 11:00 pm |
  8. Beth

    A pleasure to read Steven, thank you for the insiight...beautifully and thoughfully explored and written.
    I was aware of the manipulative use of religion and found it quite hippocritical. You put it very eloquently.
    Personally,I do not see God as a marionette, but rather as a conscience for us to be aware of what we are doing, why, and how we are affecting others. She/he gives us our own volition, to make or break our souls at our own will leaving us entirely responsible for our choices.
    The greatest hypocracy I think is the pursuit of wealth...materialism and Christianity do not mix...eye of the needle proverb. This is why the businssman, profit focused platform repulses me.
    It is interesting that many old religions have a commonality, and I like to believe that Jesus was a world traveler who touched many cultures so that some interpretations might vary slightly, but the fundamentals are consistent.
    Finally, to me, It does not matter whether or not Jesus was mortal, it only matters that his ideals are just that...goals towards our own self-actualization.
    I chose Christianity because it is meant to be all-inclusive and non-elitist. It is ironic that it is the platform of the extreme right.

    September 1, 2012 at 10:50 pm |
  9. malcolmtbm

    Bravo...

    September 1, 2012 at 10:48 pm |
  10. RickBangkok

    1. Went quite far to get a link for the empty chair in Bali which is a tourist trap with as many vices as Tampa during a Republican convention.
    2. 2% of Indonesians are Budhists with the world's largest Buddhist temple, although Budhism can be found on Bali.
    3. The irony is not the empty chair, but how many characters Dirty Harry has wasted with his pistol who were not white males like him. How NRA freedom can you get?
    4. Clint's speech was about as bad as those movies he made with his former non-spousal equivalent Sandra Locke.....

    September 1, 2012 at 10:46 pm |
    • Rational Libertarian

      He killed whites as well. Eastwood is a legend.

      September 1, 2012 at 10:49 pm |
  11. C Beth Davidson

    A pleasure to read Steven, thank you for the insiight...beautifully and thoughfully explored and written.
    I was aware of the manipulative use of religion and found it quite hippocritical. You put it very eloquently.
    Personally,I do not see God as a marionette, but rather as a conscience for us to be aware of what we are doing, why, and how we are affecting others. She/he gives us our own volition, to make or break our souls at our own will leaving us entirely responsible for our choices.
    The greatest hypocracy I think is the pursuit of wealth...materialism and Christianity do not mix...eye of the needle proverb. This is why the businssman, profit focused platform repulses me.
    It is interesting that many old religions have a commonality, and I like to believe that Jesus was a world traveler who touched many cultures so that some interpretations might vary slightly, but the fundamentals are consistent.
    Finally, to me, It does not matter whether or not Jesus was mortal, it only matters that his ideals are just that...goals towards our own self-actualization.
    I chose Christianity because it is meant to be all-inclusive and non-elitist. It is ironic that it is the platform of the extreme right.

    September 1, 2012 at 10:44 pm |
  12. Jim

    "Far from it. Obama is a human being, and like every human being he has made mistakes." I know this, and you know this, but Obama doesn't. What we characterize as "mistakes" he attributes to an inability to get people to comprehend what he is saying. As for putting words in others' mouths, Obama is running his mouth saying that between his inauguration and the first inaugural ball, Romney has promised to kick children off their parents' insurance plans. Is that REALLY what Romney said, or are Obama's speech writers putting words in Mitt's mouth to advance their political agenda. It works both ways, doesn't it?

    In any event, this was a fascinating look at a different meaning of the "empty chair." I wish more political figures (and their speech writers) would adopt the humility you are promoting. On both sides, not just one as you urge.

    September 1, 2012 at 10:43 pm |
  13. OTIS

    Allow me to express the truth. There is no god other than the One GOD. Those who surrender to the Will of GOD are known as Submitters or Muslims. All prophets and messengers were submitters or Muslims. Yes, Abraham, Moses, Jesus were all Muslims. The only religion accepted by GOD on the Day of Judgement will be Islam, the total submission to the Will of GOD.

    September 1, 2012 at 10:41 pm |
    • RickBangkok

      Better get a fact checker on this comment.

      September 1, 2012 at 10:50 pm |
  14. RunnerMD

    OMG!! Funny or not, the chair was just supposed to be a joke. Nothing more or less. Holy crap people can overthink things!!!!

    September 1, 2012 at 10:36 pm |
  15. MommytoanE

    Wonderfully written.
    It is true. So many people deciper the bible in their way, and aren't reading the words of god in the way he intended. Many of our "Christians" and "Catholics" can't seem to follow any of God's commandments, nor can they remember that God is the only one that can truely judge. Instead they decide what's right for us. They decide that their religion trumps all others, they decide that lining their pockets is better than anything else. Its not right, nor is it fair. And its definately not CHristian.

    September 1, 2012 at 10:19 pm |
    • Rational Libertarian

      Deuteronomy 13:6-9 "If your very own brother, or your son or daughter, or the wife you love, or your closest friend secretly entices you, saying: Let us go and worship other gods (gods that neither you nor your fathers have known, gods of the peoples around you, whether near or far, from one end of the land to the other, or gods of other religions), do not yield to him or listen to him. Show him no pity. Do not spare him or shield him. You must certainly put him to death. Your hand must be the first in putting him to death, and then the hands of all the people."

      Sounds like those Christians are right in their superiority complex in Biblical terms.

      September 1, 2012 at 10:25 pm |
    • niknak

      You are not reading the words of god, but the words of illiterate goat herders as rewritten by thousands of scribes over a 2000 year period.
      Your bible is nothing but the regurgitations of countless other religions that came before.
      And it has changed even in its lifetime. What they beleived 500 years ago was different then what you practice today using it.
      Your fairy tale was borrowed and outright stolen from other fairy tales.
      But if you want to keep wasting your time with it, fine.
      The current crop of religious scammers need sheep like you.
      Religion, the best way to seperate the stupid and uneducated from their money.

      September 1, 2012 at 10:26 pm |
    • Sherrybaby

      Well said, thats what they all want to line their pocket at our expense. Even if Obama looses this election we, the people, will support him and his family for the rest of their lives. It's a win win situation for him. Why should he care about any mess he leaves behind. And why should any president that we elect care. Their salary should be based on job performance like the rest of us.

      September 1, 2012 at 10:32 pm |
    • Rational Libertarian

      Obama is a d.ick.

      I'm a person, and I certainly won't be supporting Obama in any way. Also, it's loses.

      September 1, 2012 at 10:35 pm |
  16. niknak

    Phuck god.

    September 1, 2012 at 10:05 pm |
  17. Bella

    Good article, good point! Things might be going a little better for everyone if our politcians let God put words in their mouths rather than putting words in his.

    September 1, 2012 at 10:00 pm |
    • Rational Libertarian

      So you want the candidates to be mentally disturbed?

      September 1, 2012 at 10:02 pm |
  18. Theend

    The Lotus throne, or padmasana, in the photo is not actually empty. If you look closely there is an offering left in the seat; a tray of fruit.

    September 1, 2012 at 9:59 pm |
  19. Sherrybaby

    Never mind about the chair. Eastwood did what he is so good at. Cut to the chase and got the point across. At 80 years old he still stands for what a real man is. What makes people uneasy about him is they can't be the man he is. The John Waynes, Ronald Regan and Clint Eastwoods have been replaced by educated , weak and soft imatations. Goodnight.

    September 1, 2012 at 9:57 pm |
    • Rational Libertarian

      Wayne and Reagan were complete d.icks, Eastwood isn't.

      September 1, 2012 at 10:01 pm |
    • Patrick Lewis

      If you are educated and smart about what you are doing, toughness needn't enter the picture. Muscle is the last resort of those who's imaginations fail. It's easy to pick up a gun, it's much harder to think your way out of a situation. Harder, but more humane and satisfying. And remember, all the people you list... they were actors.

      September 1, 2012 at 10:02 pm |
    • niknak

      What has Clint Eastwood or Raygun every been tough at?
      They are actors you moron. I bet neither one of them have ever done anything that involved risk to their well being.
      So funny how your goobers eqaute violence with being tough.
      But I guess it makes sense as goobers grow up in households that were held together by violence.
      The ony thing Republicans and religious people understand is a clenched fist.

      September 1, 2012 at 10:10 pm |
    • Sherrybaby

      Ofcourse you are right. A little fun there. My point is all this about the chair is really grabbing at straws for a story. It's a waste of time to be analyzing a skit. Do something productive which, I might add, our President has not done. Makes just as much sence to vote for someone because of their political party, race or gender as it does to idiolize an actor for the parts they play. Politicians are all just good actors and masters at fooling the public. But, after 4 years of nothing, enough is enough. And the chair means nothing

      September 1, 2012 at 10:20 pm |
    • bannister

      Yes and Stephen Prothoro is that educated, weak man. He has no balls whatsoever.

      September 1, 2012 at 10:25 pm |
    • Judywire

      Off-course, no man wants to have 7 children with 5 different women. Morality for Republicans at it's best!

      September 1, 2012 at 10:40 pm |
    • sanityisrare

      Girlymen Unite !!!

      September 1, 2012 at 10:55 pm |
  20. HenryMiller

    "They claimed to know what Obama would say if he were in fact sitting in that chair..."

    Ridiculous! They were claiming no such thing. They were just making fun of the Twit-in-Chief, a perfectly reasonable thing to do.

    Religion is bad enough as it is. It's worse when used as a political platform.

    September 1, 2012 at 9:47 pm |
    • Rational Libertarian

      Very, very, very, very true.

      September 1, 2012 at 9:52 pm |
    • mcp123

      "Twit-in-Chief, a perfectly reasonable thing to do."

      List what Romney would do different...his platform and plans. YOU DON'T have any... because Romneys only plan are the failed plans of the past under George Bush (which the convention conveniently wrote out of history).

      September 1, 2012 at 9:56 pm |
    • Rational Libertarian

      You don't have to support Romney to point out that Obama is indeed a twit.

      September 1, 2012 at 9:57 pm |
    • Patrick Lewis

      No, that's exactly what they were doing. THAT WAS THE JOKE. If you weren't putting words into President Obama's mouth, it would have just been surreal and not funny. The fact that everyone laughed at what President Obama was set up to say betrays the audience's hubris.

      September 1, 2012 at 9:59 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.