A Note on Piety for Social Innovators and Entrepreneurs

In our contemporary imagination, piety is often associated with stuffy prudishness and moral scolds. However, piety is not for prudes; rather it is necessary for ensuring the positive transformation of our country and our world.

Cornel West often begins speeches with an acknowledgement of those who have come before, who gave him life and education, and nurtured him in his formative years on the “chocolate side” of Sacramento. This grateful recalling to mind of his ancestors is an act of piety. Piety is an expression of gratitude that orients the spirit, but it is also a source of renewal and knowledge that too often goes neglected in the work of repairing the world, overcoming hatred, expanding freedom, and restoring hope.

Paragons of Loyalty and Filial Piety, Wang Shanggong, 16th century. (PC: Metropolitan Museum of Art, Image in the Public Domain.)

Our default position in the work of philanthropy and public policy is to rely on our own technical prowess, expecting that we can build a better world through skill alone by improving material conditions while often neglecting the human spirit. Piety is a corrective in two ways: first, a pious disposition, an orientation of gratitude, lifts us out of what Ross Douthat has termed the “chauvinism of now” and acts to remind us that we are a link in a long chain of historical events that neither begins or ends with us. Secondly, piety allows us to overcome the myopia of innovation and improvement to focus on building a more human future rather than a future characterized merely by material improvement that does not attend to either moral or spiritual progress. Innovating with piety aims to solve deep-seated problems rather than merely palliating symptoms of distress.

Piety helps us to transcend the arrogant assumption that the way things are now is inevitable and that the challenges we face are uniquely solvable today without any assistance from the wisdom of the past or obligation towards the future. Piety disposes us to an appreciation for the traditions we have received, recognizing in them the innovations of our ancestors by which they overcame the challenges of their own age. As Donald Kingsbury wrote “tradition is a set of solutions for which we have forgotten the problems.”

Piety roots us in a stream of norms and forms and liberates us from the anxious expectation that we must innovate ex nihilo, from nothing. Piety creates guardrails that keep innovations from acting “destructively upon the larger patterns” (Wendell Berry) because they are developed without regard for the patterns of culture and society in which the problems an innovation is seeking to solve are embedded. A pious disposition while innovating is one way to prevent creating more problems through the solutions we create.

With a pious disposition we see more clearly the real problems for which we are innovating by training our minds to see the dysfunctions at the levels of culture, systems, and nature that create symptomatic dysfunctions observable today in fashion and politics. For example, approaching the problem of child care deserts in the American South requires reverence and piety — more than simple historical understanding and knowledge — for the patterns of intergenerational caregiving, especially in African-American communities, that have ushered us into the present. More innovators disciplined to see at this level would result in innovations that are more lasting than they are splashy.