Anthropology of Deficiency

According to Ingolf Dalferth (Creatures of Possibility), Christianity “contradicts a view that understands human beings in their fundamental dependence, finitude, and passivity, not merely biologically, but anthropologically, as deficient beings, interpreting their absolute dependence as absolute neediness, their finitude as a metaphysical evil, and their experience of the inaccessible as a threat of fundamental meaninglessness.” Such an “anthropology of deficiency” blocks our understanding of gift (105).

How so? Dalferth points out that the absence of something is not necessarily a deficiency: “not everything one does not have is a deficiency; not everything one becomes realizes a predisposition that one always had; not everything that one is provided with satisfies a need, so that it can be said to be that need’s fulfillment; nor can one be said previously to have lacked everything that is given to one” (108-9).

Human beings didn’t have a “predisposition” or “need” for the music of Mozart before it was composed. Yet no one can dispute “that the music of Mozart has introduced into human life something that has made it better, more beautiful, more worthwhile, more hopeful, more relaxed, exciting, and human” (109).

The relation of recipient to what is received is not single but multiple; to receive is not always to have a want satisfied or a need filled. To think otherwise is to miscontrue the gift character—the sheer unanticipated surprise—of gifts.

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