D.Z. Phillips was one of the brightest lights in Anglo-American philosophy. For over 40 years he produced a stream of books, articles and conference papers, mainly in the philosophy of religion, but also in ethics.
His first, and perhaps still most influential, book was The Concept of Prayer, published in 1965. Philosophy of religion started to make a comeback in British philosophy in the 1950s, after a period when it had been neglected because of the Logical Positivists' attack on the meaningfulness of metaphysics and theology (popularised by A. J. Ayer in his Language, Truth and Logic in 1936).
The posthumous publication of the later work of Ludwig Wittgenstein, starting with his Philosophical Investigations in 1953, played an important role here. Phillips' The Concept of Prayer was the first book to really apply Wittgenstein's work to the philosophy of religion. It showed not only philosophical acumen but also religious sensitivity, reflecting the influence not only of Wittgenstein but of Kierkegaard and Simone Weil (this trio of thinkers influenced Phillips throughout his life).
A stream of books followed. I would pick out especially Death and Immortality (1970), Faith after Foundationalism (1988), Wittgenstein and Religion (1993), Recovering Religious Concepts (2000), and The Problem of Evil and the Problem of God (2004). In his books Phillips was often fighting on two fronts: against sceptics who dismissed religious beliefs as meaningless, false or based on insufficient evidence' and against some fellow Christian philosophers who sought to buttress their religious beliefs by giving them a philosophical foundation, for example by demonstrating the existence of God or by constructing theodicies to answer the problem of evil.
He thought that the latter philosophers were in danger of reducing philosophy of religion to apologetics and so introducing an impurity into the subject, whereas he thought that its primary goal is to help us understand religion. It seemed to him that both sceptics and apologists often misunderstood the reality of God and the nature of religious belief, because they relied on too uniform concepts of existence, evidence, reality, and so forth. He criticised similar oversimplifications in his writings on ethics, for example Interventions in Ethics (1992).
Not surprisingly, he was attacked from both sides. Sceptics accused him of begging the question by resorting to what one critic called "Wittgensteinian Fideism"' while some of his fellow Christian philosophers accused him of denying the reality of God by reducing Him to a concept or of rejecting some central religious beliefs, like the possibility of life after death in his Death and Immortality. Certainly his own position could be elusive: at times it seemed clearer what he was rejecting than what he believed. But he was a doughty controversialist, quick-witted …