There was a time when doctors explained very little and patients trusted very much. There was a time when doctors scribbled commandments on pads of paper and patients followed them to the indecipherable letter.

They spoke medicalese and we translated through ears blocked by fear. We gave up the care of our bodies to the doctors, the way we gave up the care of our souls to the clergy.

Now, having been supplicants of doctor worship, we're becoming a nation of medical atheisis. Having discovered that medical people are fallible, we've lost our faith altogether. It isn't just skepticism that's replaced our former belief; it's rampant distrust.

You can see it all around - for example, in the case of Mary Northern, the 72-year-old woman who recently battled the State of Tennessee over her fate. Most of the people who have written to me about Miss Mary weren't concerned that her rights had been systematically violated by the state. They were, however, gleeful that "the doctors were wrong!" and that she'd survived their dire predictions she would die unless her infected leg was amputated.

Not one of them mentioned the fact, equally true, that she was also lucky - lucky to have beaten the odds on gangrene, and lucky to have good medical care as she did so.

In that same well of distrust, the parents of a two-year-old leukemia victim, Chad Green, have been involved for the past six weeks in one of the most moving cases to wend its way through the Massachusetts judicial system. They have fought to take their son off chemotherapy.

Understandably, the couple were devastated watching the boy suffer the side effects of cancer medicine. But less understandably, they fought against therapy that carried a better than 50 percent chance of premanently curing the boy. They just didn't believe in it.

"If God is going to give him just a short time with us," said his mother, "then we want it to be a good comfortable time." Her faith didn't spill over a bit into medicine.

In this see-saw story, the Massachusetts Superior Court ordered the Greens to resume treatments, on legal grounds that may well work their way up to the Supreme Court. But the fact is that this case came in an atmosphere of widespread community feeling against medicine, doctors, cancer causes and cancer cures.

The same people who refuse to believe that sodium nitrate or saccharin cause cancer may believe that Laetrile and distilled water cure it. They share one common attitude. They are against the medical establishment.

The old "understanding" between doctors and the lay community has broken down increasingly into an adversary relationship. To a large degree, doctors themselves have been responsible for the disillusionment. Too many have played God when they were really the Wizard of Oz, hiding their doubts behind a curtain, uttering certainities from a larger-than-life public image.

Some physicians have continued to cling to that role even as the climate changes, as people become more sophisticated and questioning. Others, it is true, operate too much, charge too much, care too little.

So far, our skepticism has done us some good. Under great "consumer pressure," hospital have humanized maternity treatment, parents have gained access to pediatric wards, and the dying are slowly gaining more control over their last medical rites.

But an overdose, of cynicism can also be deadly. At root, the relationship between a doctor and patient has to be one of trust. The trick is to rebuild that trust on new, non-authoritarian lines. On the doctor's part it requires sharing rather than wizardry - sharing knowledge and limitations, time and caring.

But the rest of us have to differentiate between blind trust and reasonable trust, between healthy skepticism and pathological suspicion.