At the end of After Virtue, after a long argument about the cultural state of modern society, Alisdair MacIntyre says we are waiting for a new—albeit very different—kind of St. Benedict. Modernity and its institutions have ushered in a new dark age from which retreat and retrenchment may yet be our only salvation.
Wiebo Ludwig, a Christian Reformed minister from Ontario, may not have shared MacIntyre's nascent Aristotelian-Thomism, but he more than shared his feelings of unease. Unlike MacIntyre, more in fact like Wendell Berry, Wiebo retreated with his family and others to the remote tundra of northern Alberta. There they forestalled the powers of a modern age, clinging to their blue Psalters, and to a more rural, agrarian way of life. "Our true religion" writes Wendell Berry, "is a sort of autistic industrialism." Wiebo's work was the recovery of another, true religion.
All did not go well. With Wiebo Ludwig's passing of esophageal cancer last month, at the age of 70, op-eds and even a documentary, "Wiebo's War," covered the clash between Wiebo Ludwig and modern society. What, the unfamiliar might ask, would modern society care for a group of the religiously fervent carving out a farm in northern Alberta? Of course it wouldn't care a whit . . . unless there was oil and gas under that farm.
And so Wiebo Ludwig, unlike the beloved, pastoral poet Wendell Berry, became embroiled in scandals ranging from sabotage to pipeline bombings to murder. None of it was ever proven. But the twinkle in Wiebo's eye, his cagey media presence, and the circumstantial evidence encasing his life underline obstructions of justice, facts undisclosed, people protected.
Paul Joosse, writing his dissertation on radical environmentalism, began visiting Wiebo Ludwig at Trickle Creek after a string of bombings in 2008 and 2009. Macleans interviewed him on the life and death of Wiebo. Radical environmentalism hardly seems to tell Wiebo's story: he did not, after all, go searching for a fight with oil and gas. It came to him. And his Reformed theology inspired not only a more radical perspective on the environment, on stewardship and respect (à la Wendell Berry), but a more fundamental shift away from a consumption-oriented culture, one which had broken covenant with its God and with itself. Theirs was a true Benedictine confession, a retreat from a dark age into a place of hope, of peace, and of new covenant.
It is a sad thing, a tragic thing, that Wiebo's legacy is radical, violent environmentalism, and that circumstances drove that community to unproven excesses. Charges of fundamentalism and cultish behaviour abound, though Joosse claims to find little evidence to sustain these. Indeed, it is lack of evidence which is its own kind of evidence in all things surrounding Wiebo Ludwig.
Macleans, Paul Joose, and others miss the point when they talk about a comingling of traditional Christianity and radical environmentalism. It is not merely an environmental message, but an interpretation of covenant and of religion which finds itself at fundamental odds with the social contract of North American life. That is not just about oil and gas. And that is a far more profound prophecy, underlining a far more worrying cultural anomie, than one radical environmentalist passing quietly in the solitude of northern Alberta.