Sunday, August 23, 2009

Matters of Life and Death: hope and bioethics at 2009 New College Lectures

As many of you know, I am currently studying at New College in Edinburgh (the window at the bottom left is O'Donovan's office).

But there is another, newer, New College that I have known for longer than this lovely place. And that is New College at the University of New South Wales in Sydney. The latter is an Anglican college that has a strong history of encouraging Christians to think carefully about their faith and their world and this focus is particularly evident in the annual New College lectures. Previous lecturers have included Stanley Hauerwas, Oliver O'Donovan, Anderw Cameron and current Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd back when he was a gleam in the eye of Labor backbenchers. Although I'm not going to be able to make it personally, this year's series on bioethics and hope also looks excellent. Too often bioethics ignores eschatology.

Here is the advertising from New College:

“Our understanding of the future changes the way we think about our ethical responsibilities in the present. The lectures will outline three different conceptions of the future and their implications for bioethics. The secular perspective derived from the Enlightenment sees the future as a human construct, an artefact created by human ingenuity. In contrast, the neoplatonic future offers the hope of an escape from the material world into the timeless realm of the spirit. The biblical view of the future provides a third radical perspective. The future is not a human artefact; it is a reflection of the loving purposes of God. Yet the physical nature of our humanity is not obliterated, it is affirmed and vindicated. For Christians, future hope lies not in being released from our physical bodies, but in becoming the people we were meant to be.”

- John Wyatt

Informed by a biblical understanding of God’s purposes the New College lectures, will consider the bioethical issues that we face every day as we make decisions about creating, preserving and protecting life. Professor Wyatt is Professor of Ethics and Perinatology, the Institute for Women’s Health, University College London. He has a long-standing interest in the philosophical, ethical and religious issues raised by advances in medical technology. He is author of the widely acclaimed book Matters of Life and Death, published by InterVarsity Press.

Tuesday 8th September | Bioethics and creation
How do different conceptions of the origins of the cosmos impact on current bioethical debates? What does creation order imply about reproductive technology, parenthood, and the intrinsic value of human life?

6.15 pm The John Niland Scientia Building, UNSW, Drinks & Canapés, lecture to follow from 7.15pm, question time and supper to follow the lectures

Wednesday 9th September | Bioethics and redemption
The minimization of suffering is central to the moral vision of utilitarianism. How does the Easter story transform perceptions of suffering and how does this impact on current bioethical controversies about assisted suicide, euthanasia, ageing and degenerative diseases?

7.30pm Main Common Room, New College, UNSW, question time and supper to follow the lectures

Thursday 10th September | Bioethics and future hope
The Enlightenment project aims to create better humans by the use of technology. How should we respond? What are the implications of the Christian hope for bioethics? How should we treat our patients now in the light of the future?

7.30pm Main Common Room, New College, UNSW, question time and supper to follow the lectures

Entrance is free. Booking is essential and must be made by 4th September.

For further information, including to book, please contact New College Reception, (02) 9381 1999,, or visit the New College Lectures Home Page.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Nicholas Stern: facing the future

On Thursday night I went to hear Nicholas Stern at the Edinburgh Book Festival. Lord Stern is the author of the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change, a 2006 publication of the Government Economic Service of the UK, which famously laid out an economic argument for a strong global response to climate change. The Review claimed that an annual investment of around 1% of global GDP is required to avoid the worst effects of climate change, which, if left unattended, could have a long term consequence of reducing global GDP by 20%.

Lord Stern has recently published another book, A Blueprint for a Safer Planet, in which he defends the necessity and content of a comprehensive global agreement that must be achieved at the Copenhagen conference on climate change later this year, an event which he calls "the most important gathering since WWII".

His talk at the Book Festival the other night consisted of readings from his new book as part of a summary of its argument. In it, he claims that poverty and climate change are inextricably linked in our context and one cannot be addressed without reference to the other, that these are the two great challenges of the present time. In order to minimise the risk of runaway climate change, he argues for a 50% reduction in carbon emissions (from the usual 1990 baseline) by 2050, with developed nations (who have been responsible for the vast majority of carbon already emitted) leading the way to demonstrate that low-carbon growth is possible and developing nations following according to a timetable he lays out in more detail in the book. But for developed nations, this involves a 20-40% reduction by 2020 and an 80-90% reduction by 2050 (the numbers vary for different nations, depending on their current and historical emissions). This timetable would see emissions peak around 2030 and reach a steady level by 2050 at around 2 tonnes per person per annum (currently, the UK average is about 10 tonnes per person, the US and Australian average is almost 20 tonnes).

In passing, he acknowledged that the numbers used in 2006 to estimate the extraordinary costs of continuing business as usual were hopelessly out of date. When more recent data is included, he now believes the real cost would be far higher than 20% and probably closer to 50% of global GDP.

Nonetheless, he was upbeat and positive and confidently assumed that a solution is possible that includes continued economic growth (low carbon growth). Noticely absent was any mention of peak oil or any references to other reminders of the impossibility of infinite growth in a finite system. As a member of the UK House of Lords, he was also unsurprisingly positive about the role of national governments and international agreements (despite admitting that no precedent exists for an agreement of the scope and nature that he is advocating). He also seemed to be at least partially banking on technologies that remain as yet unsuccessful, making reference to carbon sequestration and nuclear fusion.

However, what I found of most interest for my own research were a couple of telling points during the question time with audience members after his talk. First, he was asked what would happen if no agreement is reached in Copenhagen, or the conference is inconclusive. His answer was over five minutes long but he never answered the question. He merely repeated how important it was that the conference not fail and pointed to various indications that might give hope of success. Second, the final question of the evening came from the lady chairing the session. She pointed out that he had spoken of some terrifying possibilities and that he had told us we ought to be scared, but that he had still come across as a cheerful person. She asked how he managed this. After first joking that it was due to his chemistry (natural, not illegal!), he went on to say that if we believed that it was impossible we would never even try. Optimism by itself may not be sufficient (since it may be deluded), but it is necessary. Amongst his final words were ones something like this:

"If we don't think we can do it, we may as well buy a hat [presumably due to the hotter climate?] and write a letter of apology to our grandchildren."
In these two responses I felt there was something missing (and granted that Lord Stern is a very smart man and the format was brief and fairly popular). There seemed to be nothing between success and total failure, no possibility that we might fail to solve climate change (or that some of these problems might lack solutions) and yet still respond well. I am not talking about mitigation or adaption, though these will be elements of any scenario since much damage has already been done. I am talking instead about the possibility of faithful "failure". This is not to say that action on climate change is unimportant, nor to foster any kind of defeatism. However, I do feel sceptical that we can (in the words of his new book's subtitle) manage climate change and create a new era of progress and prosperity. What if despite our best efforts at responding to climate change (and the host of other issues) we end up poorer and more fractured as a result of the damage already done? What if cushioning social decline is all we can legitimately hope for?

To put it in more personal terms, imagine someone dying of a terminal illness for which there is no known cure. The doctors may say that optimism is necessary but not sufficient, they may wish to try new things and seek breakthroughs, and these may all be good things. But the fact remains that it appears likely the patient will die. Faced with such a situation, it is tempting to think that there are only two options: success (a miracle cure) or failure (death). And it is tempting to think that the highest calling is to devote every resource to avoiding death. But might there be a way of dying, of facing one's own imminent end, that is faithful and "successful" in some deeper sense than spending every scrap of remaining energy on seeking to escape death a little longer?

Of course, the parallel is far from perfect, since a society is not a single organism with a lifespan that faces biological death. Such terms are metaphorical when used of societies, which transition from one level of complexity to another, rather than suddenly dying. But the point is similar: that perhaps there are situations where the desperate search for a solution that gambles everything on maintaining the status quo is a worse path than grieving loss, accepting change, caring for others and preparating for a very different future. I am not necessarily saying that we have reached that point, but if we had, how would we know? And if we had, would we be willing to admit it? Can our social identity survive the realisation that the foreseeable future might be all downhill?

Friday, August 21, 2009

Home: where we've come from; where we're going

What do you think of when you think of "home"? Warmth, food, comfort, safety, family? A place to relax and be yourself? A place to leave your dirty socks lying around?

This ninety-three minute film is titled simply Home. It is stunningly shot, beautifully scored, nicely narrated and serves as one of the best short introductions to the current human predicament that forms the backdrop to my PhD research. It was apparently the largest film release in history, but somehow I hadn't heard of it until today. It has intentionally also been released for free viewing on YouTube. I would love to hear your reactions to it.

Most of the film consists of breath-taking aerial shots of places you've never seen, or of common things you've never seen like this before, while a female narrator takes us through the history of humanity and how we got to be where we are today, all in carefully scripted prose. After a twenty-minute introduction to life on earth and the history of homo sapiens, the bulk of the film covers many of the most pressing issues that are both caused by and threatening the continued existence of modern industrial society: peak oil, climate change, deforestation, soil erosion, pollution, over-fishing, sea level rises, wetland destruction, biodiversity loss, water depletion, mineral depletion, population explosion and social inequality (perhaps the only significant issues not touched upon are soil salination, desertification and introduced species - but, hey, they only had ninety-three minutes). The images progress from one case-study to the next, each standing for one of the issues under discussion. It is wide-ranging, but there is a coherent thread ("faster and faster") that unites the images, and the narration only occasionally lapses into breathless hyperbole.

And of course there is also the obligatory uplifting section found at the end of every mainstream eco-film. However, the hopeful possibilities held out, while inspiring, still felt mainly like wishful thinking. While deeply moving, it ultimately failed to convince me that "together, we can do it".

"It is too late for pessimism" the narrator repeatedly claims, but I wonder whether most forms of optimism require dishonesty (or at least a fair dollop of willful ignorance). At least, where that optimism is for something more or less like today, but perhaps with fewer cars, more efficient light bulbs and wall to wall windfarms. I am all for windfarms, but if even half of the claims in the first eighty minutes of the film are true, then it is too late for sustainable development. Things will have to get much worse before they get anything that approximates better. May God have mercy on us all.
All images from the film. Can you guess what each is of? H/T to Garth for the link and bringing the film to my attention.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

US Healthcare debate: lies, damned lies and the NHS

When massive health insurers have millions of dollars of profit at stake, it is no surprise that there is a huge amount of misinformation being deliberately spread about nationalised health care in the US at the moment. In particular, the UK's National Health Service (NHS) has been grossly misrepresented. It has its problems, of course, but overall, we have found it to be an excellent service and it has been of great help during my ongoing checkups after cancer and so far through the first half of Jessica's pregnancy. We have never had to wait long, we have received quality care on top equipment and we have not paid a penny despite not even being UK citizens. Indeed, the NHS was no small part in our decision to study in the UK rather than the US. I have also written in the past about my experiences of Australia's Medicare system, which were also positive. I am no health care expert, but it doesn't take much expertise to see through some of the deliberate lies and ensuing confusion that seem to be increasingly mudding the waters of public debate in the US.

As I understand them, the proposed health care reforms in the States are not even aiming at a system as nationalised as the NHS here in the UK. Here is a campaign allowing those who have benefited from the UK's NHS to tell it like it is in an open letter to US Congress and people that simply says this:

We urge you to ignore the myths about health systems in our country and others that are being pushed by US healthcare companies. Our national system of public healthcare works very well and enjoys extremely high levels of public support. We wish you a healthy and honest debate about healthcare in the US.
Now of course there is much debate about the use of public money, and rightly so, but debate isn't helped by smear campaigns spreading lies about what nationalised health care systems are like. If you have benefited from the NHS and would like to say so, then you can do so here.

That said, I do still wonder whether our societies (Australia, UK and US) all spend too much on acute health care, especially in comparison to the relatively little spent on preventative health care. We expect to be able to live however we like and then have the most expensive medical aid help us get out of the holes we have gleefully and collectively jumped into.

UPDATE: I don't think I'm alone on this.

Competing apocalyptic visions: an insight into my project

This recent exchange in The Guardian between Paul Kingsnorth and George Monbiot raises many of the issues I would like to deal with in my PhD research: what is a faithful Christian response to impending civilisational decline? What role might nightmarish apocalyptic visions play in Christian moral reasoning on these matters?

I am still trying to clarify the scope and focus of my main question, though these are some sub-themes within it. At the moment, I am playing with a descriptive subtitle along the lines of "Christian moral reasoning in the predicament of social decline". I will explain what I mean by "predicament" (and how it is different from a problem) in a future post.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Who is a child? I

“And whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me.”

- Matthew 18.5

I would like to begin a new three part series that attempts to give a rough outline of what, or rather who, is a child. In one sense, this is simply one way into a theological account of humanity, a discourse which interests me. But in another sense, I hope to begin a dialogue with parents, prospective parents, those who care for young people and those who have ever been a child, about the theological underpinnings of raising children. Why? Because children in our culture are too often ignored as an inconvenience or worshipped as idols. Also because Jessica and I are expecting a little girl in December. And today is Jessica's birthday and this was something she asked for.

So, who is a child? My answer will come in three parts (each with a few sub-points):
A precious gift of the Father and a member of the community of creation
A brother or sister for whom Christ died and an image-bearer called into service of neighbour
A recipient of God's Spirit, an addressee of God's word and a bearer of living hope

A precious gift from the Father of all
The first thing to say about children is that they are received. Although they come from human flesh and partake in their parents’ DNA, they arrive gratuitously. They cannot be bought or sold, earned or deserved. They are unnecessary, entirely contingent, thoroughly dependent upon a source outside themselves. They are an expression of divine grace from one called Abba, Father, from whom all good gifts originate. They are not simply another one of his many gifts, but are a particularly precious one.

And so they are to be welcomed with thanksgiving wherever they are found. They are strangers arriving at our door, to whom warm hospitality is due. They ought not be turned away empty-handed or shut outside but received with joy. And once they have crossed into our lives they must not be abused or abandoned, but should be generously provided with all they need.

A member of the community of creation
As God’s creations, children share in the common existence of all creatures. They too fall under the original divine blessing; they are good, very good. They take their place amidst a complex and interdependent web of relationships, expressing their creaturely dependence upon God through interdependence with their neighbours, human and non-human. Like us and all living beings, they require nourishment, warmth and protection since their lives, like ours, are fragile and vulnerable. Theirs are particularly vulnerable. Compared with most other animals, human children are born very immature and with few resources to contribute to their own survival. And so while we receive them from God, they receive care from us. They require attention and affection, others who will take responsibility for them and provide for their needs.

Like the rest of us, they need the rest of us, and like the rest of us, they have something with which to bless the rest of us. They are recipients of care, and yet from the beginning and increasingly, they are also a source of blessing, a conduit of divine generosity. We are not simply to receive them from God as blessings, but to receive blessings from them.

Children are one of many, and the dependency shared by all created beings is particularly apparent in them. Yet they also have their own distinct being. They are not their father or mother. Their existence is not exhausted by reference to the family, the society and environment into which they are given. They are unique members of a common kind and so each requires particular attentiveness to this child.

And yet this uniqueness is not an undifferentiated negative freedom as some have falsely imagined pure subjectivity. Although they each have their own stories, they are born into larger stories already underway. They are not the beginning, but a new start within something already begun. And so they belong to particular locations, particular people, particular communities, particular cultures. They will be raised to speak particular languages and hold particular beliefs. These may be open to revision and correction as all living traditions inevitably are, and yet they belong within a tradition nonetheless. Tradition is not a prison from which to escape, but the ground under our feet. We do not fly like the angels (who, being immortal, did not arrive in history midstream like we each do and so do not require tradition). We are human from humus (earth), Adam from adamah (ground). We require a given basis upon which to walk, both literally and metaphorically, even if we are also nomads whose journeys may not always be circular.

Consequently, raising a child within a tradition is not an evil imposition or a form of child molestation, as it has become fashionable to claim in some circles. It is a gift and a necessary provision. No child begins the human race again, but we all receive from those who have come before us. Similarly, no child can claim to end the human race, and so these children will themselves become the bearers of tradition to future generations.
” Tell it to your children, and let your children tell it to their children, and their children to the next generation.”

- Joel 1.3

See here for the second post and here for the third and final post in this series.
Images by Steve and Bill. All children pictured in this series are my nieces and nephews.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

"How much does the sky weigh?": and other questions

The BBC News Magazine is running a little competition in which they ask readers to answer questions asked by kids (with the questions sent in by flummoxed parents). The kids were generally between the ages of 4-6 and the answers ought to be engaging for children of that age. It is an interesting challenge. How well would you do on some of these questions? If you think you've got a good answer, you can post it on the BBC site - and make sure you tell us here too. The BBC site calls them all "science" questions, but about half of them belong elsewhere: ethics (3, 10), aesthetics and/or psychology (8), theology (7) and perhaps the hardest of all in philosophy (5). Here are the questions. I'd quite like to know some of the answers myself.

1) Why don't all the fish die when lightning hits the sea?

2) How much does the sky weigh?

3) Why can't people leave other people alone?

4) Why are birds not electrocuted when they land on electricity wires?

5) What is time?

6) Why is the Moon sometimes out in the day and sometimes at night?

7) Why did God let my kitten die?

8) Why do I like pink?

9) Why is water wet?

10) Why does my best friend have two dads?
Image by HCS.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

A bloodless feast: swine flu and communion

XXX. Of Both Kinds.
THE Cup of the Lord is not to be denied to the lay people; for both parts of the Lord's sacrament, by Christ's ordinance and commandment, ought to be ministered to all Christian men alike.

- The XXXIX Articles of Religion in The Book of Common Prayer, 1662.

The Archbishops of York and Canterbury have recently advised all members of the clergy to refrain from offering both elements at communion due to risk of swine flu infection through the use of the common cup. If clergy wish to offer both elements they may use intinction (dipping the bread into the wine), as long as this is done by the presiding minister rather than the communicant (since many people misjudge and end up sticking their fingers in the cup, which obviously defeats the hygiene purpose). However, this is not required. Have the Archbishops thrown out the Articles? Is this blatant disregard for a founding document on the basis of a few sniffles?

I realise that many people smarter than I are genuinely concerned about swine flu, and a little research also uncovered the fact that section 8 of the Sacrament Act of 1547 provides that
"... the... most blessed Sacrament be hereafter commonly delivered and ministered unto the people... under both the kinds, that is to say of bread and wine, except necessity otherwise require..."
It is generally thought that the exception was because communicants ought to avoid a common cup in the event of plague. I am not sure why this exception was not included in the articles themselves, and since I can't currently find a copy of Cranmer's Forty-Two Articles (which preceded the more streamlined and famous Thirty-Nine Articles), I am not sure if this was simply an oversight.

While communion in both kinds is the norm for Anglicans (in faithfulness to Christ's institution), when only one element is received, the communicant is nonetheless still receiving the full sacrament. However, wouldn't it be better as a temporary measure during pandemnic simply to use personal vessels rather than no-one getting any wine? I realise that a common cup is a powerful symbol, but then so is everyone receiving both kinds.

Friday, August 07, 2009

How time flies

In 56 seconds from now, the time will be twelve thirty-four and fifty-six seconds on the seventh of August 2009, or 12:34:56 7/8/9. Nice.

You'll never see that again, though for those of my generation or older, we've already enjoyed 01:23:45 6/7/89 and 12:34:56 7/8/90. I remember stopping my 6th grade class to announce the latter one. They very much appreciated my input, I'm sure.

And although I've more or less stopped offering points (they may come back again sometime, since there is nothing new under the sun), I wonder if anyone notices anything particularly apt about this image.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Two styles of Anglicanism: on not being in schism

I have generally steered fairly clear of recent global Anglican politics, and for those interested there has always been plenty of coverage on other blogs. However, I thought I might make a comment on a recent address by Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, titled "Communion, Covenant and our Anglican Future". In it, he outlines possible implications of pursuing a covenant model of Anglican communion, including the possibility that some churches will signup and others won't, resulting in two kinds of Anglican churches.

23. This has been called a "two-tier" model, or, more disparagingly, a first- and second-class structure. But perhaps we are faced with the possibility rather of a "two-track" model, two ways of witnessing to the Anglican heritage, one of which had decided that local autonomy had to be the prevailing value and so had in good faith declined a covenantal structure. [...]

24. It helps to be clear about these possible futures, however much we think them less than ideal, and to speak about them not in apocalyptic terms of schism and excommunication but plainly as what they are – two styles of being Anglican, whose mutual relation will certainly need working out but which would not exclude cooperation in mission and service of the kind now shared in the communion. It should not need to be said that a competitive hostility between the two would be one of the worst possible outcomes, and needs to be clearly repudiated. The ideal is that both "tracks" should be able to pursue what they believe God is calling them to be as church, with greater integrity and consistency. It is right to hope for and work for the best kinds of shared networks and institutions of common interest that could be maintained as between different visions of the Anglican heritage. And if the prospect of greater structural distance is unwelcome, we must look seriously at what might yet make it less likely.
This point is worth making and repeating. That we may well end up with two Anglican paths (at a formal level) doesn't mean we all hate each other, or that all possibilities of ongoing co-operation or mutual mission are now closed. It might be sad, but it is not the end of the world, nor even of that thing known as Anglicanism.

I've been thinking recently about the merits and pitfalls of avoiding unnecessarily apocalyptic modes of thought in other contexts and so this quote jumped out at me.

Part of living prior to final judgement is that we are to refrain from judging others (e.g. Luke 6.37). This does not mean we must never make any kind of humble preliminary evaluation about the lives and witness of those who claim to represent Christ, but it does mean that we hold back from doing so in ultimate ways, pronouncing condemnation upon others. If we embrace the goodness of God's action in Jesus, then false teaching that denies or undermines it will need to be gently corrected, but it quite possible to do this without turning everyone with whom we disagree into a diabolical and godless villain.

One implication of this is that I think it is best to avoid using military language and thought-patterns in how we understand the present Anglican crisis. If we want to speak in terms of fighting our enemies, the holy scriptures remind us that our true foes are not those Christians on the other side of this or that issue. Our enemies are spiritual: the spirits of disunity, factionalism, pride, impatience, fear and so on. The Anglicans with whom we disagree are brothers and sisters for whom Christ died and who may well have been blessed with some of the very weapons required to help us fight our own demons.
PS For those struggling to understand exactly what the Archbishop's address means, the Bishop of Durham has published a commentary. There are many other responses in various places, but I post this one because it is as much exegesis as analysis of the Archbishop's text.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

What if the bailout works? Naomi Klein on Sarah Palin

An interesting article from Naomi Klein (author of No Logo) in the Guardian.

"The US bailout is a robbery in progress, the greatest heist in monetary history. But consider for a moment: what if it actually works, what if the financial sector is saved and the economy returns to the course it was on before the crisis struck? Is that what we want? And what would that world look like?

"The answer is that it would look like Sarah Palin."
What she means is that Sarah Palin was symbolic of the kind of rampant capitalism that refuses to acknowledge any ecological limits to economic growth. Remember "drill, baby, drill"? Read the rest here.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Grumbling vs Lament: how to complain faithfully

Do all things without murmuring or arguing.

- Philippians 2.14

Throughout the Scriptures, there are two streams of complaint. One is roundly condemned as grumbling or murmuring and the other is held out as a model of godliness and is usually called lament or groaning. The former is exemplified by the children of Israel in the wilderness wanderings and the latter is found throughout the Psalms as well as being at the centre of one of my favourite NT passages.

But what is the difference between them? Is it possible to lament without grumbling, to groan without murmuring? In both cases, the speaker is discontent with the present circumstances and expresses this verbally. In both cases, there can be strong emotions of anger and frustration, of pain and sorrow. But there are three key differences between healthy and unhealthy dissatisfaction.

First, a different basis. Grumbling can be based on a perceived lack that has confused a want for a need. I might wish I had more money, but I doubt that I actually need more money. Sometimes this very lack can be a gift of God to stretch our trust and mature our perspective. Our society has largely forgotten what contentment looks like, particularly material contentment. "Godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that." (1 Timonthy 6.6-8) "I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want." (Philippians 4.11-12) We don't need very much at all. That so many of us are massively wealthy is a blessing and a responsibility. But let's make sure that our complaints are not over something where contentment and thankfulness would be more appropriate. That said, when the Israelites complained for lack of food and water, this was a genuine need. So the basis of the complaint is not in itself sufficient to distinguish between murmuring and lament.

Second, a different primary audience. The children of Israel in the desert grumbled against Moses. The psalmist generally takes his complaint directly to God. When someone has a problem with me, if he just gripes about it behind my back, he does me a disservice and removes the possibility of a truthful and productive confrontation. He ought to either bear with my idiosyncrasy, or if it is a genuine fault, then he should speak to me with gentleness, humility and compassion, seeking to show me the problem, restore the relationship and help me grow. The last thing he needs to do is whinge about me to someone else. Similarly, if I have a beef with God, then that complaint ought to be brought into our relationship. God is big enough to handle it.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, there is a difference in temporal aspect. By this I mean that grumbling looks backwards at a real or perceived golden age and wishes that one were still back there while groaning looks forward to God's as yet unfulfilled promises. Compare these two examples:
“If only we had died by the LORD’s hand in Egypt! There we sat round pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death.” (Exodus 16.3)

How long, O LORD? Will you forget me for ever?
    How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and every day have sorrow in my heart?
    How long will my enemy triumph over me?
Look on me and answer, O LORD my God.
    Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death;
my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,”
    and my foes will rejoice when I fall.
But I trust in your unfailing love;
    my heart rejoices in your salvation.
I will sing to the LORD,
    for he has been good to me. (Psalm 13)
The first example looks backwards to good old days (!) in Egypt; the second looks forwards to the day when the psalmist will be rescued from his predicament.

Grumbling assumes that we know what is best and that this corresponds to where we have been. Better the devil you know. Better to be trapped in Egypt and live than to risk life in the desert for the sake of an unseen promise. That is grumbling. It looks backwards and does not trust. But faithful complaint looks forward to what has been promised. It yearns and aches and earnestly seeks the coming of God’s kingdom and is not content with the compromises and brokenness of today. In difficulty, it doesn’t ask “why is this happening to me?” or “what have I done to deserve this?” but simply “how long, O Lord, until you fulfil your promise?”

So don’t look back with regret, wistfully remembering or imagining what life would be like if only you didn’t have to take up your cross and follow Jesus. Instead, look forward with hope, to God’s coming kingdom, to the resurrection of the body, to God’s ultimate victory over all that enslaves and pollutes his good world. When you complain, complain faithfully.