A professor of philosophy in the college of letters and sciences, Gregg Valeriano has been challenging students on their own beliefs since he began teaching at MSU in 2002. From his perspective, examining and answering questions such as “Why am I here?” and “What is my purpose in life?” are some of the most important things humans can do.
“Philosophers like Pascal or Heidigger thought that the ultimate philosophical question is why is there something rather than nothing … and that sounds really abstract, and when you read Martin Heidigger, it is … but if you pare it down, you start to ask “why am I here?” as opposed to not. I could easily have not been here” Valeriano said, “so why am I here? How did I get here? What is my purpose in life? And how do I know this? Those are some of those questions we should all be asking continually and constantly, trying to find more complete or nuanced answers to. Very basic, but very important, I think.”
A native of New Jersey, Valeriano became interested in philosophy as an undergrad through of one of his professors, a teacher of history and religion who challenged his beliefs and encouraged him to examine why he believed what he believed. After he graduated from Princeton Theological Seminary in 1997, Valeriano spent several years teaching in Switzerland. In 2002 and moved to Montana to begin working at MSU.
Valeriano spoke on his home state and move across the nation. “Overall I don’t miss [New Jersey],” he said, “but New York City is a pretty cool place. Growing up I used to go to hockey, football and baseball games and all that kind of stuff, or to the art museum or Carnegie Hall. So I miss that aspect, but not enough…overall I don’t want to go back.”
Valeriano has an active Christian faith – he is an Elder at Bozeman’s Trinity Presbyterian Church – which has influenced his studies of theology and his career in philosophy.
“I think a lot of people have this idea that Christians or people who are religious just take things on faith. And a lot of people do, and I think that’s a shame. I think that if you understand Christianity correctly, it actually teaches you to think very critically about what you believe and why you believe it,” Valeriano said.
Valeriano related his approach to philosophy to that of the influential thirteenth century philosopher and Catholic Priest Thomas Aquinas. “Christians believe that we are all made in the image of God, and that means that we are able to know truth, goodness and beauty. So Aquinas was on the lookout for that, wherever it might be found. So I try to do the same thing; wherever there is truth, goodness and beauty, I want to find it. And if I don’t have it, or if I have a mistaken belief about that, I want to correct that. And you can only do that in the context of different opinions or beliefs.”
In his capacity as a teacher, Valeriano rarely states his beliefs in class because he wants students to be able to trust his presentation of different viewpoints as unbiased. “None of us are objective … I need to present other points of view in a loving and caring way because they [who hold different views] are my neighbors.”
Last April, Valeriano had the opportunity to moderate the Christianity and the Tooth Fairy Event, a discussion between John Lennox, an Oxford professor and christian, and Don Demetriades, an atheist, colleague and friend of Valeriano. The Veritas Forum, which organized the event, contacted Valeriano to be the moderator for the discussion. The student turnout for the event impressed Valeriano. “I think it reflected well on MSU, and this community, that students really are interested in these kinds of questions,” he said.
The Veritas Forum has recently contacted Valeriano about moderating another event this coming January, an offer which he plans to accept. Exact details of the event have not been released yet.
When considering his favorite aspect of his job, Valeriano said it was the opportunity to teach students, and to learn new things in turn; he described the relationship between students and teachers as a “gift exchange,” a notion he acquired from one of his colleagues.
“Here’s what bums me out the most: a student in the back row who’s had their computer open and hasn’t looked up for 45 minutes in a 50 minute lecture because they’re looking at something else on the screen … they’re not realizing what we are talking about here is actually very important and so in that sense they don’t engage in this gift exchange, they don’t accept the gift and they don’t want to reciprocate,” Valeriano said.
He continued, saying, “It’s a total cliche, but as teacher you learn as well as the students in a classroom. That’s what I love about teaching. I am constantly challenged, and it’s just a great thing…you’re trying to give them something, and when the students respond, they’re giving back and you receive something. That’s what interests me in teaching.”