Today's technology allows you to track any number of things, from the number of steps you walk each day, to the length of your individual sleep cycle. And now there's an app that claims it can track something even less tangible: spiritual progress.
It's called SoulPulse, and it was created by various psychologists and sociologists with the intentions of tracking broad patterns of spiritual living among the general population. Or at least, among the population of those who have smartphones. So far, there are a little over 2,300 registered users. The makers of the app say on their FAQ page that registration isn't limited to one spiritual tradition: "SoulPulse is open to all people regardless of religious belief. Participants who don't believe in God can respond about a higher power or whatever is holy to them."
Here's how SoulPulse works. When you register for the app, you'll take a survey answering questions about your health, your personality traits, your past religious experiences, etc. Then over the next two weeks, you'll take spiritual surveys twice a day on your smartphone where you'll report on, say, how joyful you feel, or how strongly your awareness of God is in any given moment. When the two weeks are up, the app will then compare your daily surveys against the first survey, and will send you an animated, interactive report tracking just how much spiritual progress you made over the 14 days.
The idea is that the report will show you patterns and connections between your daily activities and your level of spiritual health. For example, is there a connection between your exercise routine and your awareness of God? What about a connection between the day of the week and the amount of love you feel? SoulPulse claims it can find these various patterns in your life, and present them to you in you in a discernible fashion. You can then use this information to make adjustments accordingly.
The app uses the Experience Sampling Method, which is essentially a methodology where researchers ask surveyors to keep a daily dairy of their activities and feelings. This particular data-collection method, according to the makers of SoulPulse, "captures daily life as it is perceived by respondents from one moment to the next." It's based on Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's concept of flow, which he defines as "a state of concentration so focused that it amounts to absolute absorption in an activity." Here is a TED Talk Csikszentmihalyi gave about it.
Casey N. Cep participated in the two-week program, and wrote about her experience for The New Yorker. Cep began the program with the conviction that "spirituality … is a thing that cannot be counted," and acknowledged that poring over her progress report seemed a bit like "weighing your life in coffee spoons." Cep took her concerns to Pastor John Ortberg, one of the creators of the app, who agreed that spiritual things "aren't always quantifiable." But even though, said Ortberg, SoulPulse's technology might be new, the discipline of looking for God's presence in the mundane moments of life is "a tremendously old practice."
SoulPulse certainly seems like a helpful app for those looking to track their spiritual practices with more regularity. But the questions Cep raises are worth thinking about. Marshall McLuhan, philosopher of communication theory, once said, "The medium is the message." What that means is, the content we communicate takes on the character of the mode by which we communicate it. For example, Neil Postman, a philosopher who has often interacted with McLuhan's theories, argues that any televised church program is always in the first place entertainment because that is the character of television. There is always something lost in the translation process; in this case, what's lost is a sense of community and the sacredness of being in a holy place. One channel up, worship gives way to a ballgame; one channel down — Oh, look, Sharknado! Arguably, an app that tracks your spirituality on the same device by which you send gifs and selfies faces the same criticism.