The Axial Age, a term coined by German philosopher Karl Jaspers, is often associated in contemporary scholarship with the rise of theoretical thinking, ethical universalism, and religious transcendence. In this talk, I will seek to refine our understanding of this notion by tracing the development of philosophical argumentation in pre-imperial China. Drawing on recently excavated texts from the Shanghai Museum corpus, I will argue that Warring States religious discourse features a fundamental tension between two competing modes of religiosity: an elite mode, accompanied by a moral theology, which stresses devotion to a fixed body of practice, and a popular mode, accompanied by a practical theology, which portrays ritual as a negotiation technique that facilitates communication and exchange between the human and divine realms. Tracing the origins of this tension is thus crucial in helping us better understand the evolution of religious thought in China and can also offer us new and exciting ways of expanding our modern definitions of religion.
Ori Tavor is a lecturer in Pre-modern Chinese Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. His research focuses on the relationship between individual modes of religiosity and communal ritual activity. He is currently working on a book manuscript, based on his dissertation, which examines the role of bio-spiritual practices, such as meditation, sexual cultivation, and calisthenics, in the development of the literary genre of ritual theory in Pre-modern China. This interdisciplinary project, which draws on Confucian, Buddhist, and Daoist sources, aims to distill a Chinese approach to the theorization of ritual and bring it in conversation with modern approaches and methodologies in the study of ritual and religion.