Dewi Z. Phillips held the Danforth Chair in Philosophy of Religion at the School of Religion at Claremont Graduate University. He lived and worked in Claremont, California, every spring from 1992 through 2006. For 15 consecutive years he traveled to California and returned every May to Wales. Just before returning to Wales he would often say, “When I step off the plane my whole world changes.” Dewi thus lived the last years of his life in two different worlds: Swansea and Claremont. Those of us in Claremont know that he treasured his Swansea world and that the world of Claremont would never replace it. We saw this in the way he lovingly spoke of how his wife Monica looked after his every need. We saw it in the pride he displayed when telling stories about his three sons and their families. We saw it in his undying devotion to the Department of Philosophy in Swansea. And so I am deeply honored to spend just a few minutes telling you about his other world, life in Claremont, and his lasting influence on those of us who lived and worked with him there.
The world of Claremont for Dewi was filled with graduate students who adored him or vehemently argued against him or sought his guidance and advice or admired him from another field outside of philosophy or avoided him altogether because of his reputation as a tough professor. He once overhead a student say to another student, “You can go out for a drink with Phillips and still get a B- in his class.” He liked that. People energized Dewi and nothing energized him quite like students. I think it is fair to say that for him a student’s genuine questions are the philosopher’s most precious commodity. He once said in a class to a student who openly complained about “juvenile questions” being asked by other students, “There are no juvenile questions in my class; there are only questions.” Dewi was deeply admired and respected by hundreds of students and former students because he attended to their questions with the same serious attention that he gave to the most prominent philosophers in the field.
Claremont also included his colleagues and co-workers. His fellow faculty members admired him for his extraordinary work ethic but were always a bit worried that the university administration would expect all of us to work as hard as he did. Claremont invigorated him to prodigious levels of publication because he encountered a diversity of perspectives among his colleagues. It reminded him of what Wittgenstein said of Shakespeare: “He shows you a city with no main road.” Similarly, the School of Religion at Claremont Graduate University is not a single way of looking at religion. It is many perspectives all arguing, discussing, and vying for position. He loved that about Claremont and his colleagues there, and believed that it is the best environment a university can offer.
Claremont was also a place of friendship for Dewi. His friends included students, former students, colleagues, retired colleagues, and others in the community, who took him to concerts, plays, ball games, and other social events. He enjoyed good food, good wine, and a good single malt, but only in the company of friends. In these groups, he was invariably the center of attention, telling stories and jokes until the wee hours of the morning. He was the best storyteller that most of us had ever heard. His friends also witnessed the quiet side of Dewi, a surprisingly sensitive man who often complained about himself that he was hopelessly sentimental. We loved that about him. We shall terribly miss his extraordinary capacity for friendship that included both an ability to entertain a large party for hours and to offer a sympathetic voice of encouragement to a troubled friend.
I am not certain that Dewi fully appreciated that for those of us who studied, worked and/or socialized with him, our world changed too, every time he stepped off that plane. His influence and charisma were such that we seem also to have lived in two different worlds: Claremont with D.Z. Phillips and Claremont without D.Z. Phillips. He brought such an enormous amount of energy to the place that it will be extremely difficult for us to go on without him. And this is our plight: What does it mean for students, colleagues, and friends to live in a world without Dewi Phillips? My worst fear is that Claremont will seem boring and uninteresting without Dewi there every spring. Life in Claremont will surely lose much if its charm. But I have a hope also that rests in Dewi’s own Christian beliefs about the Eternal. The will of the deceased one becomes absolute and unchanging. If this is true, then Dewi’s influence will rise to a spiritual level such that for students, colleagues, and friends in Claremont, the world will be a place that demands that we take seriously the questions of our students, that we encourage and facilitate a diversity of perspectives within the university, and that we enjoy the full breadth and depth of our friendships. For those of us who knew Dewi in the Claremont context, these values now have an eternal significance to which we must each respond.
It is no small matter that Dewi Zephaniah Phillips was the greatest philosopher of religion of the 20th century. And yet, that is not what passes into eternity with Dewi’s passing. It is, rather, those eternal values that his life showed to us as a teacher, a colleague, and a friend.